Office politics—these two words are often used with disdain when discussing the workplace. In fact, research over the last thirty years indicates that political behavior in the office is primarily perceived as negative by individuals and may evoke a sense of unfairness, deprivation and inequity. Political behavior has also been found to have a negative effect on job performance and organizational commitment, especially for non-management employees. Peter Block summed it up well by saying, “If I told you, you were a very political person you would either take it as an insult or at best as a mixed blessing.”
Political behavior at work can take a variety of forms, and I’m sure any executive or long-time employee can provide a list of examples. In my work across industries over the last couple decades, I have found that political behavior most often shows up in three forms—a perceived threat, a turf battle and a gain at another’s expense. All of them involve the concept of power since political behavior is essentially power in action. These three forms can occur in isolation or in combination with one leading to the other.
The Perceived Threat
This form of political behavior is the one that seems the most obvious in its tie to power. More specifically, it involves one individual being seen as a potential challenge to another individual’s power thereby prompting defensive tactics. This type of political behavior can frequently be found when an established leader in a company is faced with a very capable newcomer to the organization.
If you encounter this form, try these tactics to navigate it:
- Identify what is causing your counterpart to see you as a threat
- Use the identified cause along with empathy to guide interactions with your counterpart
- Be candid with your intentions
- Ensure your actions align with your stated intentions to neutralize your counterpart’s concerns
The Turf Battle
The turf battle boils down to a struggle between parties over areas of responsibility, span of control and/or organizational resources. For example, you may have witnessed an executive going head-to-head with another executive in order to try to be the sole leader of a specific division.
Key tactics for navigating the turf battle include:
- Talk with colleagues (or your counterpart if it is possible) to determine the underlying reasons that your counterpart is gunning for the turf
- Take an honest look at your own reasons for wanting the turf
- Generate multiple options that will address the underlying needs of both parties
- Use the multiple options as a foundation for mediating discussions with your counterpart
The Gain at Another’s Expense
This type of political behavior can show up in two ways. The first way is to take credit for someone else’s work or success in order to get ahead. The second way is by undermining someone in order to advance or protect oneself.
Key tactics for navigating this political behavior include:
- Keep your ego in check to avoid getting pulled into a tit for tat exchange
- Subtly make key stakeholders aware of your role in critical accomplishments
- Utilize stakeholders’ awareness of your accomplishments to deter your counterpart from taking undeserved credit or undermining you
- Clarify your role in accomplishments at appropriate times in public forums if your counterpart attempts to take credit or undermine you
Although the three preceding forms of political behavior are negative in nature, being able to navigate them offers a view of political behavior that is just the opposite. It can be argued that the skill to navigate the three forms demonstrates positive political behavior, especially when it helps to accomplish the organization’s objectives, enhances collaboration and is based on accepted ethical standards.
(Photo: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Flickr)