Deal with the Office Politics


Deal with the Office Politics
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Best Practices

When the term “politics” arises in everyday conversation, people generally roll their eyes and try to move on to other topics, as it has become such a difficult environment with highly polarized and entrenched viewpoints.  However, politics of a different type exist in the office environment and may impact a variety of things ranging from employee morale to who gets promoted or what projects get done.

Are office politics good or bad? Can office politics be managed?

I would like to start the discussion with the Wikipedia view that office politics “involve the use of power and social networking within a workplace to achieve changes that benefit the organization or individuals within it.” I like this definition because it is rather evenhanded and focuses not only on power but also on social networking. It also highlights that the objectives may be the betterment of the organization or of people in the organization—and perhaps of both. In this context, clearly “politics” can have both positive and negative outcomes, so the trick in an organization is to develop a culture that cultivates the positive aspects of politics and tamps down the negative aspects. 

What then are the positive aspects of corporate politics? Here are some, primarily derived from the “social networking” aspect:

  • Promotes the formation of bonds between employees. This is generally good for the organization, as it leads to more harmonious relationships and a more collegial work environment. It can also enhance employee retention.
  • Leads to a higher level of dialogue on important company issues. This increased discussion may result in a deeper level of understanding as well as a more critical assessment.
  • Leads to more dialogue between different parts of the company. This can enhance employee visibility and mobility.
  • In the end, the networking and discussions at multiple levels and between different parts of the organization may help advance projects or strategies that are complex or controversial.

The negative aspects of corporate politics may be more apparent and often have to do with individuals seeking only to promote their own status at the expense of others and with no regard for the organization. Such individuals may engage in negative activities such as the following:

  • Spreading rumors and negative information about others.
  • Suppressing information that could be useful to others in decision making but is perceived by the individual as damaging to the desired outcome.
  • Behind the scenes deal-making that may result in the advancement of projects, activities or people that are less than ideal.
  • Passive aggressive stances, such as supporting someone else’s project in public but not taking sufficient steps to ensure its success in order to tarnish the reputation of another person or part of the organization.

How can you recognize these negative office politics? More importantly, how can you reduce their frequency and influence? 

The best strategy is to model positive and productive behaviors yourself, regardless of your level in the organization. If another employee comes to you with gossip, try a­nd move the conversation on by asking for facts and examples. If you are trying to convince the organization to do something, ensure that all the information is brought to light, and address the issues and questions that arise in an open manner. Strive for fairness in your dealings with employees that work for you and avoid favoritism or even the perception of it. If you are contemplating making some sort of deal with another manager (yes, sometimes deal-making is healthy), make sure you are doing it for the right reasons (i.e. the benefit of the overall organization and not advancing undeserving people or actions).

It is useful to reflect on situations in the workplace most prone to politics; these are typically the kind of situations where people are competing for scarce resources. Here are some of those situations from my experience:

Employee ratings and promotions. Regardless of your system for employee evaluation, there are limited spaces for people to advance and a high degree of competition. Ensure that your system is as open and fair as it can be. Require that managers bring facts and evidence of accomplishments to support promotion. Your human resources team should play a strong role to ensure that biases of all types are eliminated from the system.

Operating budget allocation. Whether you are bringing your budget to your boss or allocating budget amongst your direct reports, this process is fraught with difficulty and the potential for politics. If you are the decision maker, ask your managers to bring to the budget meeting specific projects that are “on the cusp” and that will be cut if the overall budget is cut. Use data to compare returns and consequences of eliminating projects. 

Capital project budget allocation. Ensure an impartial check (such as by your finance department) of data and assumptions going into project return projections. Ensure that proper risk analysis is done and that projects are in line with strategic objectives. If you have a gate review process, ensure that the decision makers are carrying out their roles in a thorough fashion.

Appointment of people to visible roles. Roles like project manager, high-level meeting organizer, presenters to the leadership committee or the Board, and other highly visible and important temporary positions are great opportunities for people. Ensure that these opportunities are not always given to the same people because they are someone’s “favorite” or because they are “well-networked.” Spread such roles around those deserving the opportunity and give people support so that they can succeed, regardless of where in the organization they come from.

Support for approved company strategies and plans. Sometimes a strategy or plan may come down from the leadership and you may not be completely on board, or perhaps you were actively opposed to the direction. Nevertheless, once approved, do your best to carry out the plans and avoid even the perception of undermining them. Be honest with your team that you may have wanted to go in a different direction but rally support for the new strategy and give it a chance. If the strategy ultimately fails, ensure that you and your team carried out your organization’s role appropriately.

Moving your company culture toward healthy social networking and away from toxic politics can lead to better business outcomes  and a more collegial climate.  

Sara Lefcourt of Lefcourt Consulting LLC specializes in helping companies to improve profits, reduce risk and step up their operations. Her experience includes many years in marketing, sales and procurement, first for Exxon and then at Infineum, where she was vice president, supply. Contact her at or (908) 400-5210.

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