Playing the game: The Delusional Nature of Office Politics
I still remember the day someone said to me “Gifford you have to learn to play the game.” In my mind, I am thinking, game, what game, we have a tremendous responsibility, and a lot of people depend on our services, so how can we be playing games.
Throughout my career, I am always amazed by the “games” individuals play to advance their interest. Some would call me naïve, but after 15 years working in various capacities in the public and private sector, I am still amazed by the extent some people go just to promote their agenda. WoW, looking back I can now understand that if you do not have that shared sense of purpose, people will, unfortunately, have their agenda and will go to lengths to ensure their plan is completed.
In a Harvard Business Review article, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic spoke about the psychological effects of office politics. Sigmund Freud noted that although humans are social animals, living with others does not come easy. He compared people to a group of hedgehogs during the winter: they need to get close to each other to cope with the cold, but if they get too close they end up stinging each other with their prickly spines.
This very rule governs the dynamic of office politics. You can’t go it alone, but working with others does require some discomfort. So does this mean that office politics are inevitable – that if we can’t beat politics, we might as well promote them? Well, that the delusional nature of office politics; some people believe that you cannot beat them so join them. I even heard people with good intention state I have bills to pay, so they can do whatever they want, once my salary is in the bank at the end of the month.
According to Dana Rousmaniere, nobody likes office politics. In fact, most of us try to avoid it all costs. But the reality is that companies are, by nature, political organizations, which means that if you want to survive and thrive at work, you can’t just sit out on the sidelines. If you want to make an impact in your own organization, like it or not, you’re going to need to learn to play the game. That doesn’t mean you have to play dirty, but you have to figure out how to influence those around you.
But do you really have to play this game, take this real life example from Michael Chang Wenderoth who wrote about this young lady trying to make her mark in her company.
A rising young executive found herself strategically ousted in an internal power play. Jill had all the chops to rise to the corner office: consistent top 10% performer, hardworking, intelligent, personable, driven, multilingual, an MBA from a top-tier school. Handwritten thank-you notes from the CEO proudly adorned her wall.
When I met Jill (not her real name), she was struggling to make sense of her career setback. “I was universally liked across the company, a team player who put in more hours than anyone else,” she said. “I was heads down on delivering results, shared my inner self and built trust…everything I was trained and even coached to do.”
According to Michael Chang Wenderoth, with those words, I recognized what had happened immediately. Jill was one more victim of what I call the “Kumbaya” school of leadership, which says that being open, trusting, authentic, and confident — and working really hard — is the key to getting ahead. The Kumbaya school is doing the Jills of the world a great disservice, leading them to often act in ways that are detrimental to their careers.
What should Jill have done differently? Well according to Michael, Jill should have spent much more time managing up. She should have better-managed decision makers, her boss, her image, and her own career. Rather than being chained to her desk delivering great work, Jill should have been networking with the most influential executives, ensuring those above her noticed her contributions and confirming that she was being perceived as executive-suite material.
Oh really! So let me get this straight, instead of producing work that helped the organization meet their objectives, being authentic and trustworthy, being a team player; Jill should of virtually suck up to the executives to advance her career. That’s utterly ridiculous, and if you find yourself in an environment where your work means nothing to the leaders of the organization, you need to find another place to work.
No one, not the leadership or junior staff should accept that type of behavior at their job, but before we get into the approaches and strategies one can use to mitigate these practices at their company, let look at the negative aspects of office politics and how it can lead to a demotivated workforce.
The adverse effects Politics:
1. Employees who do not believe in working hard depend on nasty politics to make their position secure at the workplace.
2. Employees play politics simply to come into the limelight and gain undue attention and appreciation from the seniors.
3. Politics refers to the irrational behavior of the individuals in the workplace to obtain advantages which are beyond their control.
4. Nobody has ever gained anything out of politics; instead, it leads to a negative ambiance at the workplace.
Source: Management Study Guide
According to Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, it’s important to recognize that untrammeled politics have a corrosive impact on the organization. This can be hard for leaders to realize: because most organizations promote individuals who are politically savvy, managers and senior executives tend to perpetuate rather than inhibit office politics.
If you are rewarded for playing the game, you surely have no incentive to stop playing. But to most employees, politics signal a discrepancy between what should be done and what is really done, defeating their own sacrifices and efforts. This leaves most employees demoralized and united only against their bosses or senior leadership, not a good position for a company to be in.
What can a leader do
Well, according to Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, conversely, in less toxic companies, leaders manage the tensions within groups to enhance team performance and, in turn, organizational effectiveness. To do this, the best managers recognize the psychological underpinnings of office politics and do two things in response:
1. They manage the way they themselves behave, and
2. They are careful about how they motivate others.
As such, good leaders focus on the bright-side personality characteristics associated with their ability to navigate office politics: social skills, emotional intelligence, and intuition. They recognize that the more secretive, selfish, hypocritical, hierarchical, and incompetent they appear in the eyes of employees, the more political the organization will become. So they are driven to come across as competent, transparent, approachable and altruistic.
People must understand the influential nature of leadership. As mention above, if a leader has questionable tendencies, that organization will be very political. If you have a leader who promotes that type of practice within their company, what do you think will happen, it will become commonplace and the people who care about their work and believe in putting in the hours and working really hard, will eventually become delusional and believe they are doing something wrong.
Real leaders motivate their employees to try harder, they avoid pitting employees against one another and instead focus on out-performing common adversaries: the company’s competitors. They do this through articulating a meaningful mission — a vision that resonates and motivates people to achieve a collective goal.
This keeps the team focused on beating their competitors, rather than each other. Additionally, Management Study Guide also suggest that the best way to win at office politics is to:
- Stay out of it. Don’t get involved in any of the controversies at the workplace. Avoid unnecessary disputes and conflicts.
- Concentrate on your own work rather than interfering in other’s business. Remember you are paid for your hard work and not for playing dirty politics at the workplace.
- Don’t always find faults in others. Try your level best to help your fellow workers whenever needed. Never give them wrong suggestions.
- Be honest. Never break anyone’s trust. If any of your colleagues has confided in you, don’t ever walk up to the superiors and disclose the secrets.
For all the people reading this article and for the people who are in that type of environment and believe that’s how the world of work is, especially the young people, I have news for you; it is not. People who strive in that type of environment are the ones who are:
1. Trying to advance their personal agenda and
2. They were influenced by that type of behavior during their career and believed that’s the norm.
3. They are very insecure about their ability to lead.
I have seen these type of behaviors from leaders and their junior staff with my own eyes. This is not normal, and it should be eradicated immediately. Now, before I hyperventilate while writing this article, I want to stop at this point. I am strongly against any office politics and as leaders we have a responsibility to ensure our employees love their work and we should do everything in our power to create that great place to work; not one that is mere in gossip, backstabbing, backbiting and personal attacks on people's character.
For the people who continue to tell me “Gifford, office politics is a way of life, accept it.” I will continue to respond by stating, no one especially any leader should encourage and take part in that type of behavior; no one should accept that delusional thinking. Maybe in their own little world that's a norm, but not me, I will continue to advocate against this type of practice and always strive to influence and inspire other leaders into creating an excellent organisation, one their employees will love and enjoy.
Let’s change the leadership status quo.
About Gifford Thomas
I am the founder of Leadership First and the author of The Inspirational Leader, Inspire Your Team To Believe In The Impossible. At Leadership First, we are committed to publishing the very best inspirational leadership quotes and articles to inspire our 187,000+ community of leaders to believe in the impossible, while creating an environment free from toxic, fearful and intimidating leadership. We believe everyone can and should enjoy their work, but it must start with the leadership leading by example. Follow our community of leaders HERE, and let's change the leadership status quo to help inspire and motivate our leaders to make a difference and create an organization their people will love.
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