When you hear the phrase “office politics,” what comes to mind?
Do you imagine:
- “Makes me want to run and hide”
It’s not a pretty list, is it? Whenever I talk with people about “office politics” their viewpoints have a negative theme associated with them.
These words represent the dark side of human nature – what I call “people behaving badly” at work. Behaviors that produce these types of reactions are unproductive and harmful to workplace relationships, so it’s natural that we would take a dim view of something that encourages these outcomes.
Office Politics Leaves People Feeling Manipulated
So, where’s the source of pain with office politics?
The website commercedictionary.com defines office politics as “the ways in which the people in a workplace relate to and behave towards each other, especially the ways in which people use the power and status they have.”
Let’s deconstruct the definition a bit. . .
We’ve got people “relating to” and “behaving towards each other.”
That doesn’t sound so nefarious, does it?
It’s that last part of the definition—“acquiring and using power or status” that gives office politicking a bad name.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with people who use power and status, but it’s the way in which they use it that conjures up negative associations. Colleagues dislike it when the interpersonal dynamics are such that they believe one person (or group) “wins” and another “loses.” When people perceive that “office politics” are at play, they think they’ve been somehow manipulated . . . and that never feels good.
Reframe to a Positive Perspective
Office politics gets a bad rap, and often with good reason. Is there ever a time when office politics can be a good thing?
I’d like to explore an alternative way to view this workplace dynamic. Online author Barbara Oaff defines office politics as “The way in which workers recognize, and seek to reconcile, their competing interests.”
This is a value-neutral definition. It’s when “competing interests” crop up that the potential for maneuvering starts. And when some people choose to “act badly” they put into play actions that eventually create tension. (And let’s face it—also hostility and passive-aggressiveness, if things are allowed to continue.)
Competing interests are an inherent part of our work life. Limited resources are the norm. So are differences of opinion. There are two possible ways to work through those competing interests. You can choose to set up an outcome that serves only you (or your group), or you can work towards reconciling the competing interests.
Office politics doesn’t have to be cloak-and-daggers, or brown-nosing, or credit stealing. There is a different type of way to get what you want at the office, and it doesn’t require you to leave your integrity at the door. I call it “Positive Office Politics” and you can put this concept to work immediately once you know where to focus your energies.
Developing Your Political Savvy – Positively!
Researchers at the University of Florida published a book called Political Skill at Work. It summarized nearly 15 years of intensive study of the mechanics of “political influence” in the workplace.
The university researchers identified four key competencies of the positively politically savvy. They are:
- Social astuteness
- Interpersonal influence
- Networking ability
Do you see how these are constructive qualities of human interaction? There is no back-stabbing or favoritism inherent in these competencies.
Here’s the good news: we can all do these things. These are all skills we can hone for ourselves and more importantly—model for others. We know how to network. We can be sincere. We can work on our interpersonal influence.
Conversely, people who are not politically skilled in these four traits come off as manipulative or self-serving. So you could say that people “behaving badly” are just unskilled in Positive Office Politics. (Yes, yes, I know. This is a charitable attribution.)
Choose to Model the Positive Traits of Relationship-Building
Traditionally, when most people think about office politics, they summon a snapshot of negative images that portray the worst that human behavior has to offer. Perhaps you’ve found yourself forming these negative thoughts on occasion.
Professional relationships are an integral part of workplace culture and a driving force behind every business. If there is conflict due to negative politicking, resentment festers, and it will have an adverse impact on your ability to produce results. You can help reverse this trend by choosing to model the four positive relationship-building traits of Positive Office Politics.
When you do so, you won’t be known as “political”. Instead, you’ll build a reputation for being “good with people”. And that’s an indispensable tool every workplace-savvy professional needs in their toolkit.
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This post first appeared on People Equation in 2011. An expanded version appeared on the Association for Talent Development site in 2013. This version has been updated in 2022.