Are office politics a necessary evil for anyone that wants to succeed in corporate life? Are they a symptom of a poisonous environment? Or, are they simply an illustration of the way human beings operate in society? Is there really any difference between office politics and social climbers? However we might describe office politics, the one thing that most people agree upon is that they tend to detract from performance, and rarely (if ever) enhance it.
The reasons that people engage in office politics are fairly obvious. Often it is simply a way of trying to gain an advantage. In many cases people are looking for some form of personal advantage, but it could also be to advance a cause. When people engage in political manoeuvring, it is likely to be driven by a simple motive; “I want to be….”. Some people might want to become the CEO, others might want to be better paid, better rewarded or more recognised. Often other people have the control over whether we become what we want, or not. Who makes the decision on promotions, pay increases, bonuses and awards? Who do I need to garner favour from? Who do I need to influence? How do I get them to form a positive opinion of me? In answering these questions, and trying to solve this problem, people might also look for ways to take credit for things that have gone well and deflect blame for things that didn’t. Here’s an example…
Meet Brandon. Brandon is an ambitious young executive that has serious career aspirations. In his job application he stated that he was a driven individual that had his sights set on getting to the top. During the interview, he reinforced that he wanted to progress through the organisation and become a senior executive; he even hinted that he aspired to join the board of directors in time. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Brandon’s primary agenda is his own career progression. He wants to climb the corporate ladder as quickly as possible.
Knowing that is his agenda, it’s also unsurprising that Brandon’s decisions and behaviours reflect this. He looks to form alliances with those who he believes can enhance his position. He wants people to be impressed. Like everyone, Brandon faces choices. Should he present something accurately and factually, knowing that it could create a negative impression? Or could he ‘dress’ the information to create a better impression? If something has gone wrong, does he look for excuses or an opportunity to blame? Or does he take responsibility, admit fault and risk looking bad? What’s most important to him? What’s his agenda?
In his book, The Wisdom Of Crowds, James Surowiecki states that “A 1962 study of young executives, for instance, found that the more anxious they were about moving up the job ladder, the less accurately they communicated problem-related information” (p. 205).
In my view, the presence of office politics simply illustrates that there are competing agendas at work. They show that we have some fundamental differences between the aims and interests of the members, and those of the team. In an environment where politics are rife, leaders see a group of people desperately trying to clamber over each other to reach the top. It is hardly the makings of a coherent team. Instead of a team pulling in the same direction, we see a collection of ‘cats’ all following their own self-interests and agendas.
So, how can we bring about the end of office politics in our teams?
The starting point is to recognise that there is a fundamental misalignment. The leader, and the team, need someone to provide accurate information and take responsibility. However, the individual perceives that doing so might not be best way to progress their career. The challenge for leaders is to align these two things and ensure that being honest and taking personal responsibility are the best ways to progress. The organisation needs to show that it truly values those things. Undoubtedly, many organisations say that these things are important. But, how do leaders actually behave? How do they respond to people who deliver bad news? What happens when people report that they are behind target? What about people who admit mistakes? Is it encouraged and embraced? Do leaders welcome people who say, “I’m struggling here, I could use some help”? Or, are they seen as ‘weak’ or ‘incapable’? Do leaders prefer to surround themselves with ‘yes-men’, who regularly compliment them and feed their egos? Or, do they welcome those who openly challenge them and offer critical input?
If we truly wish to see an end to political games, we need to recognise that our actions either encourage them or discourage them. We decide whether playing the political game is advantageous to people. Our actions tell our people whether we truly value those who are honest and take responsibility, or whether we prefer ‘yes-men’ and those who only deliver good news. In essence, we choose to create an environment that either cultivates office politics, or one that kills it.
Read more about how to get the most from your people in How To Herd Cats.