Why You Cannot Afford to Ignore Office Politics

Partially visible man cutting off the tie of sleeping businessman
••• GettyImages/Daniel Grizelj

Humans are political animals and everywhere groups gather, a political environment emerges that determines who’s in charge, who gets a vote on key decisions, and what work gets done. Someone or some group holds critical decision-making power over you and your progression. Ignoring this reality is naïve. Consider the very real case of Ben (name changed to preserve anonymity).

Case Study-Ben and His Boss Fall Victim to the Internal Game of Thrones

Ben was a product developer in a mid-sized manufacturer of industrial products with a great track record of devising and designing hit products. He was blessed with a talent for observing customers in their environment and designing products that solved problems or reduced burden.

Ben was ambitious, as well, and he firmly believed he could do more for his firm if he were in a managerial role guiding a team of product developers. He had lobbied his boss aggressively on this promotion, and his boss had actively advocated for Ben in senior management meetings. Unfortunately, the last two promotion cycles had come and gone and Ben had not yet earned that promotion. Both Ben and his boss were frustrated.

A bit of the back-story on Ben is in order here. While everyone recognized his great abilities as a product developer, he was widely viewed as socially awkward. He was an awkward communicator and his outward demeanor suggested that he was unapproachable.

Sadly, perception is reality and in spite of Ben’s successes and his boss’s advocacy, there was another executive actively lobbying to lead the product development efforts. This executive was an adversary of Ben’s boss and whenever the idea of Ben being promoted was suggested, this adversary would offer, “I know Ben is great at his work, but we’ve all seen him in action with groups. Does anyone really believe he’s ready for a leadership role?” This passive-aggressive attack derailed the discussion and Ben’s prospects every time.

In this situation, both Ben and his boss were victims of the political dynamics in senior management at this firm. Ben’s boss was failing on two counts in spite of his positive support for Ben. First, he had failed to provide Ben with coaching to help him overcome his communication and social challenges. Second, he had failed to develop a strategy to fend off or neutralize his adversary.

A Strategy Switch Wins the Day for Ben and His Boss:

Eventually, Ben's boss recognized the issues in play and took action to fix them. He engaged a coach who worked with Ben over a six-month period to help him dramatically strengthen communication and interpersonal skills. And he leveraged his role on the senior management team to provide Ben with more “face-time” on key product development issues.

The combination of coaching and increased exposure effectively neutralized the adversary’s tactics. Ben gained that much deserved and sought after promotion and today, Ben’s team is known as a “hit machine,” with a long string of product successes. His boss was promoted to senior vice-president.

6 Valuable Lessons on Workplace Politics:

  1. You don’t have to play dirty, but you have to play: The best way to cultivate power is to help others achieve their objectives. Reciprocity—the belief that they owe you their support—is a powerful force.
  2. Someone always wants what you have or disagrees with what you are doing: While your noble intent is indeed noble if you ignore the political dynamics in play, you are naïve.
  3. Strive to understand the political landscape. It pays to understand who has the power to help you succeed. It also pays to cultivate positive relationships with those individuals.
  4. You have to give to get: Giving power—or helping others create power—is a powerful method to grow your own power. 
  5. Today’s team members are tomorrow’s allies: While it’s always a little sad to lose a valued employee to another function, the upside is that you now have a valuable ally in another part of the organization. Great power brokers plant their allies all over the organization. 
  6. Sun Tzu was right—keep your friends close and your enemies closer: I prefer to engage with my adversaries to strive to understand their positions and objectives, and to attempt to find common ground. While finding common ground might not be possible, at least I develop an understanding of what makes them tick.

The Bottom-Line

Too many people shy away from the issues of politics and power in the workplace. “I don't want to play the games,” is a common refrain I hear. I’m not asking you to play dirty; however, I am encouraging you to take into account the realities of human interaction in groups and play. Fail to read the political signs in your organization and I guarantee you’ll get lost.