Office Politics – The Bad, The Ugly & The Good

How often have you said something like, “I hate office politics. I just refuse to play that kind of game”?

If you said, “very often” you are likely in good company. It’s a topic that tends to make one cringe and yet, in any business involving more than, say, two people, it is simply a fact of organizational life.

So what can we do about it?  Well, we can ignore it and hope it goes away. Or, we can take a closer look to determine how office politics could prove to be a tool rather than a weapon.

There are many definitions for the term office politics but I think it is about power; how we acquire it and; how we use it to influence others while also promoting our own agenda.

It could be argued that given this, there is a definite leadership component to the practice of office politics and as such, it’s really not something that can reasonably be ignored.  But, it certainly has its dark side and so I’m going to attempt to make some distinctions.  Here goes:

Bad Office politics = Self-promotion over the greater good

Self promotion is not a bad thing.  After all, when we accomplish something great it is not wrong to feel pride or to talk about it. In fact, sometimes people go the other way and are far too modest when talking about their achievements.

However, self-promotion crosses a line when it is allowed to take precedence over the achievement of collective goals.  The practice of bad office politics involves inordinate amounts of unproductive time being spent tapping into the organizational grape-vine, (a repository for incomplete information and throwaway commentary) to determine “strategies” about who to suck up to next or, what tidbit of information might be useful as a questionable tool of persuasion.

Bad office politics is where gossip and innuendo lie.  It represents the gray edges of organizational life and it is no wonder that most people have little tolerance for it.

Ugly Office politics = Destructive behaviour that benefits no one.

Ugly office politics takes the notion of self-promotion to greater depths.  People who practice ugly office politics are not above taking credit for other people’s work.  They are often very crafty and good at placing blame on others for mistakes they have made themselves.  In the extreme, ugly office politics includes bullying and coercion, two very unattractive and destructive activities.

In short, these are the practices that can make organizational life intolerable

But let’s not throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water here. Office politics, in spite of its dark side, holds some opportunities as well. Here are my thoughts on that:

Good Office politics = Building Positive Relationships

Building relationships is something that leaders must engage in to get things done. They have to go beyond the confines of their own area to build purposeful and focused relationships with people in a variety of roles, levels & situations. They do this for a few reasons:

  • To understand and stay focused on the larger objectives of the organization.
  • To forge mutually beneficial alliances with others in the organization and;
  • To make certain that they get the resources they need to accomplish their goals.

This means spending time with people at all levels of the organization; finding out what makes them tick; giving support to their goals and using their power of persuasion to contribute to situations where everyone gets to win.  This is the nature of good office politics.

The practice of good office politics relies on only a few things:

  • A good moral compass;
  • A generous attitude toward others and;
  • A genuine desire to further the interests of the organization

And, by the way, a natural by-product of practicing good office politics is the respect and good will we earn from the people we work with. I have observed that people who practice good office politics often have all the recognition and accolades they can handle.

And that can’t be bad.

What do you think?


Filed under Building Relationships, communication

7 responses to “Office Politics – The Bad, The Ugly & The Good

  1. Gwyn,

    What a thorough coverage of a very topical topic. I think all your points are well taken. What role does a business leader play in office politics?

    Does she fly above the fray, and ignore the battle below? Or, should she send a strong, office politics message that integrity matters? Love to know you thoughts

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Larry,

      Thanks for checking in.

      I think that the actions a leader takes to intervene in the game of office politics is situational. If, for instance, there is destructive behaviour going on that adversely affects the morale and esteem of good people in the organization, then it is not something that can reasonably be ignored. Ignoring such behaviour is tantamount to condoning it and no leader worth his or her salt would condone something that undermines not only the people in his/her organization but the organization itself and the vision of success it is working toward.

      The strongest message a leader can send comes from the behavior s/he exhibits. If s/he is committed to building solid relationships and is authentic and purposeful in going about it then it is more likely that others will see the benefit of doing the same.
      And, if s/he rewards those same behaviours in others then building positive relationships will find a way to become part of the organizational culture.

      Apart from dealing directly with truly destructive behaviours , I think that most leaders have more pressing things to dwell on than the day to day squabbles and manoeuvrings that human beings sometimes engage in. Those who practice bad office politics usually find ways to hoist themselves on their own petard anyway.

      Anything to add? 🙂

  2. Nice post, Gwyn. I especially liked your three suggested good practices, which can transform bad to good. Office politics is a reality that should be addressed instead of avoided, and you have provided excellent guidance on how to be successful with that.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Thanks for your comments Joe!

      Office politics is not a topic that people like to dwell on because it can bring out the worst in people and frankly, it feels a lot better to focus on the positive side of the human balance sheet.
      Turning what can be very negative into a positive is a challenge worth pursuing though because as you suggest, it ain’t going to go away 🙂

  3. An organisation with around 200 employees working in the public sector asked us to develop a coaching program for their senior managers which would accelerate the implementation of their new strategy.

    An ambitious 10 year business plan needed strong leadership to guide an underlying culture change, shifting the focus of the business from a public sector mentality to one of business and commercial awareness. The CEO had been in place for only a short time, having been promoted rapidly from company accountant to Finance Director to CEO.

    We coached the CEO to develop this strategy, and this evolved into a coaching program for the senior managers, supporting them in implementing the strategy in their own areas of the business.

    From the beginning, the CEO avoided key issues during coaching and inconsistencies began to show during conversations between the CEO and the Directors. During a strategy workshop, Directors closed ranks, recited rehearsed statements about the strategy and looked to the CEO for approval.

    After just two months into the coaching program, it was clear that some managers’ ideas to implement the strategy were being blocked, whilst others were contradicting themselves and avoiding accountability. The CEO was continuing to avoid key issues and was making very little progress overall.

    The main issue appeared to be the avoidance of accountability. Staff would avoid work that they were not interested in and their managers would take on extra work rather than make individuals accountable for their actions, so work flowed up the organisational structure rather than down and managers took on a higher workload resulting in longer working hours, greater stress, mistrust and resentment .

    We called a meeting with the CEO and told her that we were closing the coaching program.

    The fundamental issue was that the CEO was manipulating her managers and the board in order to support her own hidden agenda; her early exit. She knew that she did not have enough experience as a CEO to secure her next position, so the only option was a significant achievement in the form of a merger with another organisation which would give her an instant successor from outside the organisation, enabling her to block succession from within. She had already removed two Directors and had identified a third who she was setting up to fail in key performance areas. She influenced board elections to ensure support from new members and gave the impression that she was protecting her team from the board in order to control communication between them.

    This complex system of control and manipulation bred mistrust, avoidance and dishonesty throughout the management team and began to create a barrier to the CEO’s own hidden agenda. The business was disintegrating faster than she could orchestrate her exit, and at some point the board would take the exit decision away from her, leaving her with neither the experience nor the achievements to move forwards yet equally unable to move backwards.

    At our final meeting, we told the CEO that we had identified all of this, and that we were no longer part of the game. Although she was surprised at our withdrawal from the program, she admitted to everything that we said. She recognised the risk that she faced, and the danger that she was putting the company in. If we had said nothing and continued to coach her, the coaching would have been ineffective because of her manipulation and avoidance. By admitting to her behaviour, she had taken responsibility for it and no longer needed coaching. Either way, our feedback was more valuable than any coaching ever could be.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s