Defining Office Politics

The bane of many of my clients’ existence is office politics. They hate it, often for “moral” reasons and at least as frequently because they’re no good at it. They long to find a workplace where office politics don’t exist, or are at least minimal, and where people’s advancement is judged on merit alone. If only there were such a place! Office politics exist because power is unevenly distributed in any organization, and is almost always in some state of flux. Office politics is how competition between individuals, interest groups, or causes gets resolved. A good working definition of “office politics” that would apply to you as an individual is: “Strategies or tactics that people use to further themselves, others, or positions on issues.”
These need not be sneaky or slimy strategies or tactics. You don’t need to be a backstabber or a snake (although many people could be characterized in that way). And you certainly don’t need to behave unethically. But to ignore the existence of office politics is to handicap yourself in your quest in career advancement, and to handicap the positions, causes, or ideas that you feel are worth promoting.

Politics Within Organizations

Interestingly, the prevalence of office politics within an organization depends much less on the mission of the organization than it does on the people holding the power. The most altruistic non-profit can be boiling with political intrigue while an organization in a traditionally cutthroat field (e.g. politics or advertising or trading derivatives) might be a place where extensive politicking is frowned upon. It really depends on the key leaders of the organization, what matters to them, and the qualities they’re focusing on in the people they value most. Some organization’s leaders truly are focused overwhelmingly on talent, intelligence, or interpersonal skills, while others are looking more for loyalty and unquestioned obedience. Donald Trump is probably looking for a different set of skills and values than was Steve Jobs.
Some people are “natural” politicians. They’re likable and sunny, straightforward and kind ( or are at least able to project those qualities sincerely). Others find politics excruciating, perceiving it as fundamentally manipulative and dishonest.
A study in the Journal of Management (2005) by Gerald R. Ferris and others reviewed 15 years of research and concluded that political skill was more important to advancement within an organization (corporations, government, educational institutions, and sports teams) than was innate ability. The two key components of this “political skill” are social astuteness (closely related to “emotional intelligence”), and networking ability (which adds in personality dimensions such as likability and outgoingness).
Social astuteness is a particularly difficult area to improve, but not impossible. It requires constant practice. The key to practicing social astuteness is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes so as to be able to ascertain what is important to them. Sometimes this is a fairly straightforward task – often bosses or co-workers will articulate quite clearly what they are aiming to achieve, and the characteristics they value in others. But in more cases, social astuteness requires you to be a careful and astute observer, gleaning not just from words, but from actions, reactions, and interactions what really matters to the person you’re looking to understand. You can also gain valuable intelligence on the motivations of someone by talking to people who know them well – although this needs to be done discretely and carefully. Learning how to operate effectively in the political office environment enables you to develop “win-win” strategies that serve the interests of both parties: the ideal way to get things done.