Working in a Highly Political Organization
Thriving in a Toxic Workplace
Politics is almost as exciting as war. In war you can only be killed once, but in politics many times.– Winston Churchill.
Everyone has an agenda in the workplace. Whether people are aiming for a promotion, attempting to win a big project, trying to impress their boss, or looking to move departments, their actions often have an underlying purpose.
These different motivations can lead to healthy, professional networking and communication, but they may also cause power struggles, competition and alliance-making that upset everyone within a team.
In this article, we'll discuss how you can identify this type of "office politics," and we'll explore ways to avoid its negative influence.
What Are Office Politics?
Office politics can be defined as the use of often underhand methods to gain advantage in the workplace. People do this to achieve their goals, gain prestige, or seek greater influence, so that they can persuade others to share their viewpoint, access assistance or resources, or get ahead in their careers.
We all need to build good relationships in the workplace. For example, the more connections you can build with stakeholders and senior leaders, the more likely you are to succeed. And, engaging with leaders rather than staying on the sidelines means that you increase your visibility and ability to accomplish your goals.
However, this can cross over into office politics when people participate in destructive behaviors to influence others, and it can have a number of harmful consequences. Instead of relying on positive relationship-building techniques, such as persuasion and networking, individuals use damaging and unethical actions like manipulation, corruption, backbiting, or infighting. This can cause people to become frustrated at perceived inequities, damage team morale, and result in stress and burnout.
What Is a Highly Political Organization?
Professor Kathleen Kelley Reardon identified four types of political organizations, and published her findings in the January 2015 Harvard Business Review. These organizations are:
- Minimally political: leaders ensure that rules, expectations and promotion standards are clear and followed. Office camaraderie is strong, and no one engages in underhanded political acts.
- Moderately political: these organizations are generally rules-driven, and any political activity is low key. People engage as a team, and few conflicts occur.
- Highly political: powerful individuals manipulate the rules to their advantage, at their own convenience. As a result, who you know is more important than what you know. Cliques are common, and there's usually a clear division between people who are part of the "inner circle" and those who are not.
- Pathologically political: this environment is marked by distrust. People achieve goals by circumventing normal channels and procedures, and by relying on personal connections. In these organizations, people focus less on work and more on protecting themselves, and seeking advantage.
Highly and pathologically politicized organizations and teams are likely to demonstrate the following:
- Friction: relationships between team members and departments are contentious, curt or nonexistent.
- Deceit: people may discredit others to make themselves look better.
- Gossip: conversations frequently involve discussions about people who aren't present, rather than focusing on legitimate business issues.
- Silos: political organizations often have team members, or even whole departments, who attempt to get ahead by withholding information or resources from others.
- Rivalry: people are jealous of colleagues and are interested in personal wins, rather than in the organization's success.
- Power plays: people use their connections to get ahead, regardless of their skills or experience.
- Blame culture: people are reluctant to take responsibility for their shortcomings, and shift the blame to others instead.
- Manipulation: people achieve their goals by indirect means, such as coercion, often at the expense of others.
Many of these characteristics reflect Patrick Lencioni's Five Dysfunctions of a Team: absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of team accountability, and inattention to team objectives. Read our article for more on how to overcome them.
They also resemble the unhealthy characteristics present in the latter stages of Adizes' Corporate Lifecycle. For example, during the "recrimination" stage, people often assign blame instead of fixing problems, focus on their survival to the detriment of their work, and spread unhealthy gossip. Although many organizations linger here, this stage often precedes "corporate death."
How to Survive in a Political Organization
So, how can you defend yourself in a political workplace and ensure that you and your team members survive office politics? Here are seven strategies that you can use:
- Set a good example. Make sure you "walk the talk," and demonstrate positive behavior. Communicate consistently and transparently, encourage good teamwork, reward good behavior, give feedback on poor behavior, listen, build trust, behave in an emotionally intelligent way, and seek win-win results in all of your interactions.
- Avoid gossip. Spreading rumors and sharing intimate details about your colleagues' personal lives will rebound on you. When people find out that you've disclosed information about them, you'll damage your reputation, lose credibility, and destroy their trust in you – something it can be difficult to recover from. Deal with gossip immediately to avoid malicious rumors spreading. Talk to the people involved to establish the truth, and make sure that you lead by example by not gossiping yourself.
- Combat bullying. This type of behavior is unacceptable in any situation. Unfortunately, however, it is common in the workplace. If you're a victim, or suspect that a team member is suffering, read and apply your organization's anti-bullying policy. Record the specifics of incidents, and consider taking formal action.
- Focus on your goals. Avoid taking sides when conflict arises, and concentrate on your objectives rather than on the opposing viewpoints. After all, everyone should agree on the ultimate goal: ensuring that the team or organization succeeds. See our article on conflict resolution and our Bite-Sized Training session, Dealing With Conflict, for more on addressing issues effectively.
- Identify stakeholders. Who holds power and influence in your organization? Identifying and strengthening your ties with stakeholders gives you greater insight, and it allows you to navigate these complicated relationships successfully. Remember, job titles don't necessarily reflect power. Instead, it's often based upon a person's ability to influence others.
- Develop alliances. It's important to find allies at work who can support you, give you advice, and even provide friendship. So, avoid focusing exclusively on your work and ignoring opportunities to build relationships with others. You can create lasting alliances by networking with others at various levels in your organization. Also, find a mentor who can show you how to steer clear of potential problems and help you improve your connections.
- Keep written records. If a conflict arises that requires intervention from human resources or your supervisor, make sure that you have documentation to support your position. For example, keep track of your ideas, suggestions and accomplishments by recording them in a time-stamped e-mail, and if you're having trouble with people, keep careful notes on specific incidents.
Using these strategies will help you navigate the corporate environment, and avoid negative behaviors and politics. However, if your situation doesn't improve, it may be best to leave the toxic environment and look for a new position in a healthier workplace.
If you're leading a pathologically political organization, you need to take action urgently – this behavior will be causing huge damage. See our change management articles within our project management section for more on how to lead a cultural transformation.
A highly political organization is characterized by destructive behaviors such as gossiping, infighting, deceit, rivalry, and manipulation. When people cross the line between using their influence for the good of the organization and harming others as they try to get ahead, the workplace can become dysfunctional and toxic.
Surviving in a highly political organization can be difficult. Instead of participating in negative behaviors, take action against them, avoid bullying and gossiping, build alliances, and keep written records of conflicts.