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What you need to know about office politics to get ahead

By John Dawson FIML and Carmel McDonald FIML

Office politics have a strong effect on every workplace. It seems that almost every organisation we go into is frustrated by a lack of cooperation between departments or units. Some of the classic causes are:

  • Lack of trust
  • Turf protection and organisational silos
  • Competition between unit leaders
  • Treating information or knowledge as power, to be used as a lever rather than shared.

These are manifestations of organisational politics. Anyone who aims to succeed or remain successful in corporate life should develop the skills needed to manage organisational politics. It damages collaboration, spreads non-productive competition and impacts decision-making, resource allocation and career progress. Properly managed, organisational politics can be a force for good. We need to harness the positive aspects.

Politics are everywhere

Some executives really believe there are no politics in their organisation, but in more than 20 years of consulting, we’ve yet to see such an example. We have run three national surveys across a span of six years to test perceptions of “organisational politics” in workplaces. There is a strong division of views between survey respondents:

  • [Organisational politics] is all about power: who has it and who sucks up to it!
  • It creates division and initiates suspicion and mistrust
  • If used well, it keeps people moving towards a goal
  • Senior people’s time, otherwise spent on client engagement or management, is spent managing differing parties and uncovering their politics
  • Due to being naive about office politics, I have not always got the decision-makers on my side, as I thought my performance would speak for itself
  • It needs to be seen as a necessary skill in leading people because it is about influencing people to follow a cause.

People said that to be described as “politically astute” would evoke the following reactions:

  • It would mean you were surviving
  • I would regard it as a compliment, with the caveat that I can maintain my own ethics and principles
  • I would see it as a compliment, but know that it may well be meant as an insult!

Our research shows almost 75 per cent of executives think of organisational politics as a negative factor; only 20 per cent see it as a constructive tool to achieve results. Middle managers tend to believe organisational politics adversely impact the allocation of resources; many people have seen careers affected by organisational politics. However, most believe their own teams are fairly free of organisational politics and that any problems are caused by individuals or teams outside their own units.

How to manage politics

Whether you think organisational politics are negative or constructive, if you can’t manage organisational politics with impact and integrity, it will limit your career. These skills are important to ensure you and your team get support and recognition for your projects, and for protection against unethical players who try to deny you resources or undermine you.

The higher you go, the more important these skills become. There will always be individuals who try to improve their own position by giving misleading information to senior leaders and trying to sabotage colleagues. While some executives are adept at managing organisational politics with integrity, many are under- or over-political.

Organisational savvy gives you the skills to deal with organisational politics while maintaining your moral compass.

The under-political refuse to take any part in organisational politics, believing the quality of their work will speak for them. They are frequently surprised to find that decisions have been made without regard for their logic and careful presentation. Someone has exercised influence behind the scenes to secure a different result.

The over-political usually focus their efforts on advancing personal interests, putting energy into controlling the flow of information in and out of their unit, aiming to create private “power pockets” to maximise their influence. Ultimately, over-political senior executives may destroy their own careers.

The sweet spot is in the centre of these two extremes. Organisational savvy gives you the skills to deal with organisational politics while maintaining your moral compass. This allows you to:

  • Influence others and get your ideas implemented even without possessing authority
  • Receive the recognition and career advancement you deserve
  • Identify and protect yourself from deception, power plays, hidden agendas and personal attacks.

Are you under-political, over-political or do you have organisational savvy?

  • Do you know what people say about you behind your back?
  • Who will defend you against malicious comments?
  • Who are the key political players in your organisation?
  • Who is on your network of trusted colleagues?

Developing organisational savvy is an ongoing process. What you knew in your last job isn’t enough going forward.

Identify political players

Those who use their informal influence without integrity have no compunction in pursuing their own goals, even if these are contrary to the interests of their organisation. They do not hesitate to undermine colleagues they think may pose a threat.

Watch how people in your team or organisation operate. Who is using informal influence to get things done? Are these people acting ethically to achieve organisational goals or are they motivated by self-interest? Watch for:

  • Decisions that run counter to established policy or practice
  • Surprising or unexpected promotions
  • Decisions announced but later overturned
  • Discussions where an executive puts up an idea and gets rapid and wide support from others.

When any of these happen, decide who was exercising the informal influence and had the most to gain from an unexpected decision. Make sure you keep tabs on their activities to protect yourself and your team from unethical behaviour. Align yourself with political players who act ethically.

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