The mention of organizational politics is frequently met with harsh words and disparaging glances. Society, as a whole, has grown to view anything political with chagrin. Much of this disdain comes from the awareness that politicking, when successful, is associated with manipulation, and in some cases, verbal or physical intimidation. Moreover, the general public has been inundated with stories of abuses of political authority including misappropriation of funds and dubious financial transactions of government and industry officials. These personal transgressions have done little to remove the dark cloud that has developed over anything construed as political.
Unfortunately, politics pervades virtually every work environment and no public/private enterprise, service/manufacturing industry, or blue-collar/white-collar occupation is immune from its influence. Simply put, as long as there are employees with diverse personalities, needs, and wants, workplace politics are to be expected. Politicking is viewed unfavorably because it often blurs the relationship between what one contributes at work and what one receives in return. Instead of raises and promotions coming to those who work the hardest and contribute the most to company profitability, rewards are given to those who are most successful at manipulating the reward allocations of decision makers.
What Are Political Behaviors?
Politicking represents deliberate, self-serving behaviors (although frequently indirect) that are often inconsistent with the goals of the organization. Behaviors can be very subtle or extremely caustic, and directed toward multiple constituents both internal and external to the organization. The only requirement for politicking to surface is for the work environment to possess finite resources or a limit on available rewards. Resources can take the form of equipment, personnel, mentors, and/or social support. Rewards include status enhancements, promotions, pay increases, and development opportunities.
In general, individuals see politicking as a means to secure desired outcomes perceived as unattainable under more organizationally legitimate means. The table above outlines the major attributes of politicking at work along with examples of each.
Despite disparaging opinions, employees would likely agree that much would go undone and many successes unrealized if politicking were eliminated from the corporate landscape. For example, trade associations hire lobbyists largely due to their ability to sway the opinions of important legislators. In this instance, politicking occurs, but the self-serving benefit is more indirect.
It is apparent that politics has a rightful place in organizations. Unfortunately, there is little consensus in terms of the exact location of this “rightful place.” What is known, however, is that politicking is viewed favorably when it leads to personally beneficial outcomes such as greater than anticipated raises, promotions, and favorable treatment from supervisors.
Adverse Consequences of Workplace Politics
Reactions to workplace political activity can range from mild amusement to devastation. On the one end of the spectrum, many organizations have the “chronic politicians” who spends considerably more time trying to manage their image than actually working. These individuals are viewed as largely transparent, with their obvious motives and their tactics caricatures of the quintessential “slick snake oil salesman.” That is, these individuals come across with an obvious personal agenda, their style is too smooth, and they are too ready with a canned response or elusive statement when confronted. In short, these individuals offer little in the way of contribution but much in the way of comic relief or irritation.
The negative effects of perceived politics typically occur over an extended period of time, because one does not just experience a single event; there are typically multiple events. Thus, on the other end of the continuum, politics can have debilitating effects on both job and health factors. For example, one’s perceived contributions and probability of appropriate rewards are likely curtailed if politicking causes a disruption of work activities. In this regard, effort dedicated to providing a positive contribution is replaced with in-fighting, turf wars, and one-upsmanship.
Politics can lead to a variety of physical and psychological health ailments, which include substance abuse, high blood pressure, general anxiety, sleep disturbances, and depression. Furthermore, a failure to attend to conflict generated by politics at work has the potential to have indirect crossover effects on family relations. Specifically, because individuals often have difficulty leaving their problems at the office, strain at work can amplify the incidence of domestic conflict at home. Finally, the consequences of strain-induced politics can be even more devastating. A regrettable consequence of anxiety-provoking politics is an associated increase in mental health ailments, which include, but are not limited to, dejection, hopelessness, and in the most extreme case, self-destructive behavior.
The Future of Politicking
There is little reason to believe that active politicking will fade away in the future. With outsourcing, globalization, and major restructurings affecting the way jobs are designed and redesigned, organizations are going to have fewer assets to allocate. As such, competition for resources will be intense and potentially tumultuous as “doing more with less” becomes more than business jargon. For example, instead of all employees receiving technology upgrades every two years, 25 percent of the workforce may take delivery of new equipment every three years. Workers may see their jobs moved permanently oversees. To make sure that one receives the resources to be successful at work (or to secure the signal of status that comes with such commitments), performance (i.e., working hard) and nonperformance-based influence strategies (i.e., working at influencing others) are likely to be incorporated into one’s daily routine.
Deliberate workforce modifications, which have made climbing the corporate ladder a far more daunting task, further increase the possibility of politicking.
Because layers have been eliminated in many organizations, there are fewer rungs (entry-level — managerial — executive) to navigate, suggesting that promotions will occur less frequently. Instead of occurring every year or so, employees can expect the time between promotions to be extended (i.e., greater than three years). Because rewards are available so infrequently, the stakes become greater when a promotion is anticipated. Failure to successfully influence may result in a failure to secure the promotion.
Restructurings serve as a catalyst for politicking in other ways, as well. Because levels of evaluators are being eliminated, employees cannot rely on supervisors’ direct observation of performance to ensure that efforts are viewed favorably. Bosses are no longer able to appraise performance by direct observation because there are simply fewer bosses wandering around to witness employee work contributions. As a result of fewer interactions, subordinates may go out of their way to advertise their successes, minimize the contribution of their colleagues, or both.
Finally, layoffs increase the likelihood of politicking because the consequences of not fully participating in influence attempts at work are great. Very rarely do downsized individuals find jobs with equivalent work attributes in terms of pay, status, and potential for promotion. In environments expected to experience a layoff, some individuals may choose positive behaviors, while others may opt for tactics viewed by many as disreputable in order to ensure survival.
Strategies to Manage Politics at Work
“An eye for an eye,” “Fight fire with fire,” “tit for tat,” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Matching the tactics of workplace politicians seems like a logical response when one feels aggrieved. For example, if a coworker sabotages one’s work efforts, it may sound appealing to respond in a comparably hostile way. Despite the allure, there is a downside to using tactics that are largely reactive and reciprocal. Grudges develop, anxiety increases, and time dedicated to work is now dedicated to planning for the next attack. Most important, reactive strategies never directly address the underlying issues that create the need for politicking.
Organizational politics are harmful because they create uncertainty, insecurity, and confusion. Individuals are unsure of where they stand with management, what represents acceptable performance, and how they can expect their career to progress in political settings. Instead of putting out fires by matching political behaviors with aggressors, reducing uncertainty is a more useful and health-promotive option. There are a number of proactive strategies to understand office politics and reduce ambiguity in the workplace, each of which is briefly discussed below.
Seek and Maintain Mentoring Relationships
A mentor can be extremely helpful not only in terms of career development but warding off the adverse effects of politics (in fact, these objectives are largely interrelated). For example, a mentor can help establish links between performance and rewards (i.e., “If you sell 100 cars this years, your bonus will be …”), keep the employee on track in terms of progress and promotions (i.e., “In five years, I expect you to be sales manager”), offer support (i.e., “Let me talk to your manager and see if I can get you some resources), and shield the employee from the potentially debilitating effects of unnecessary politicking (i.e., “Concentrate on your job and I’ll take care of the rest”). Because mentors often develop a sense of identity with their protege, they are generally sensitive to external factors that may serve to derail scheduled progress. Mentoring programs are effective because communication is more frequent and thorough, and discussions are allowed to extend to interpersonal aspects of work that are critical to success (e.g., “Watch out for Johnson. He’ll do anything to get the next promotion”). If the organization does not have a formal mentoring program, informal programs are often equally effective. In sum, having the support of someone influential is often needed to maximize career success. Having a senior member of the organization help mitigate the potentially debilitating effects of politics, especially early in one’s career, can go a long way in this regard.
Develop Short- and Long-Term Performance and Career Goals With Superiors
If mentoring is unavailable, goal setting can serve to minimize much of the uncertainty that encapsulates political environments. If done correctly, consensus is reached in terms of performance expectancies, methods and timetable for achievement, and rewards for accomplishment. More structure equals less ambiguity, and by sticking to agreed-upon guidelines for behavior, the uncertainty caused by workplace politics is likely curtailed. As noted, the time managers are able to spend directly planning and observing employee work activities will become more limited. Thus the responsibility to remain on track is likely to fall on the shoulders of the subordinate.
Remain Active in the Interpersonal Context at Work
Often, individuals are blindsided by politics because much of the manipulation occurs outside the boundaries of formal work activity. Lunches, company parties, work breaks, and other social gatherings provide employees the opportunity to get away from work while still tolerating discussions about work. Remaining active in the social environment is particularly important for individuals who are likely isolated from their colleagues for reasons otherwise unrelated to the job, such as gender, age, and race. It is clear that understanding the reasons and tactics of those opting for politically motivated influence can minimize uncertainty. Remaining active may allow one to be part of the conversation and develop a greater appreciation for the causes and consequences of politicking.
Work on Interpersonal Skills
It has been suggested in the popular press that emotional intelligence (i.e., social skill) is a key predictor of career success. Individuals with high levels of social skill are able to empathize with others, listen carefully, read communication cues and patterns, and develop social networks. These attributes are particularly relevant in terms of minimizing politically derived ambiguity because socially skilled individuals are (1) able to pick up on the subtle cues that identify causes of behavior, (2) competent in accurately assessing the emotionality of the politician, and (3) skilled in soliciting the advice and support of others in their extensive social network. In terms of specific application, a socially skilled employee may be in a position to recognize when politicking occurs, can understand it, and may help coworkers who are less socially skilled to understand it as well. Understanding helps remove ambiguity and uncertainty. Furthermore, the socially skilled individual need not rely on manipulation to receive support and recognition, hence eliminating the need for politicking.
Adopt an Opportunity Instead of a Threat Mentality
Politics exist and will continue to exist in the foreseeable future. In general, it is comfortable and societally acceptable to focus on the negative attributes of organizational politics (e.g., wasting time, confounding the relationship between performance and rewards, creating emotional and job-related strain). Society is enamored with conflict, personality clashes, and encounters that lead individuals to be at odds with one another. Take, for example, the countless number of newspaper articles and television talk shows that focus on the less attractive elements of family and social interactions.
In contrast, some level of organizational politicking can be beneficial. In a complex way, politics breathes life into the organization by increasing competition and requiring employees to participate more fully in the social environment at work. Most employees would classify an organization completely devoid of politics as boring, a figment of top management’s imagination, or dead. Politicking, despite all of its drawbacks, gets individuals interested in the inner workings of the organization.
Furthermore, politics signal that the organization has deficiencies or areas for improvement. For example, the goal of the organization may be to promote group achievement. Selection instruments may have instead focused disproportionately on the best way to maximize individual rewards. Understanding the impetus for politicking and designing effective programs to address these motivations can go a long way to enhance organizational effectiveness. In this case, designing a more appropriate selection tool that focuses on maximizing group rewards not only enhances organizational effectiveness but also makes one valuable to the organization. This leads to the last strategy.
Take an Active Role in Your Career
Politicking requires individuals to take an active role in career development and become more accountable for securing desired outcomes. One way to survive most political wranglings is to add value and become irreplaceable. This may take the form of technical skills (e.g., “You’re the only one who understands the new computer program”), securing an important client (e.g., “The Cortez account is worth $5 million, and if I go, it goes with me”), designing a new process that improves organizational effectiveness (e.g., “Jose designed the new selection process”), or possessing the interpersonal abilities that are desired by decision makers (e.g., “When we need a loan, we send our best negotiator, Brown”). Developing these competencies cannot occur overnight. Thought, planning, and adopting long-term developmental strategies are required, which inherently assumes a proactive approach to career development.
Organizational politics exist in virtually every work environment. They are self-serving behaviors (frequently indirect) that are often inconsistent with the goals of the organization. They are behaviors that can be very subtle or extremely caustic and may be directed toward multiple constituents internal and external to the organization. Politics can have debilitating effects on both job and health factors. However, even though politics comes with adverse consequences, political behaviors can have a rightful purpose in organizations. We have offered a number of strategies to reduce uncertainty in the workplace, because this is a primary factor leading to the negative effects of politics. By doing so, individuals can reduce the negative effects of politics and take control of their careers.
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