A Better Way to Think About Office Politics

Getting to lead doesn’t have to involve scheming and backbiting. But it does require a culture where people are free to be candid and persuasive.

We know office politics are a problem because we spend so much time pretending they don’t exist.

In a provocative essay in the Harvard Business Review, business-school professor Michael C. Wenderoth throws some cold water on the notion that the way succeed is by hunkering down and doing quality work. Not that quality work doesn’t matter, of course—it’s just that all that “hunkering down” means you’re avoiding doing the necessary things to get recognition for your work, and thus clear a few obstacles on move up the org chart.

As an example, Wentworth describes the experience of “Jill,” an executive on the CEO track who found herself unceremoniously ousted. “Jill was one more victim of what I call the ‘Kumbaya’ school of leadership, which says that being open, trusting, authentic, and positive—and working really hard—is the key to getting ahead,” Wentworth writes. “Jill should have spent much more time managing up. She should have better managed decision makers, her boss, her image, and her own career.”

Using emotion, spin, or relationships to influence others feels unfair.”

We tend not to do all of those things, Wentworth writes, because we’re hardwired to believe, or at least hope, that fairness tends to prevail, despite all evidence to the contrary. “Using emotion, spin, or relationships to influence others feels unfair,” Wentworth writes.

No doubt there are a lot of people who indeed feel that way. But emotion, spin, and relationships aren’t inherently “fair” or “unfair.” They’re work skills, just as much as communication and organization are, and ones that any leader ought to make use of. After all, a leader is a person who will have to persuade others of their important, sometimes unpopular decisions. The act of persuasion may be perceived as “office politics,” but it’s also part of the simple act of leading.

I suspect what we’re really afraid of when we talk about situations like this one is that we’ll become—or be seen as—heartless and conniving leaders who’ll step on anybody in our way during our climb to the top. Not everybody can be a leader, after all. But perhaps you can cultivate the kind of environment where the need to be persuasive and up-front runs throughout the organization.

In their book An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey offer a few case studies of organizations that do precisely that. The stakes are high, they write, because too many people are spending too much time swallowed up by those “office politics”: “Most people are spending time and energy covering up their weaknesses, managing other people’s impressions of them, showing themselves to their best advantage, playing politics, hiding their inadequacies, hiding their uncertainties, hiding their limitations.”

We’ve lapsed into this mode, they write, because we have an old-fashioned concept of professional development: That we deliver feedback every so often via a check-box performance review; that leadership training is for elites in the organization; and that it’s something that happens outside the office, at a retreat or conference or coaching session. What they propose instead is one that’s open to argumentation and embraces mistakes: “a trustworthy environment, one that tolerates—even prefers—making your weaknesses public so that your colleagues can support you in the process of overcoming them.”

Such a culture doesn’t have to be reflective of Wentworth’s “Kumbaya school of leadership.” And not everybody will fit well in such a culture: “We are up to growing people, not rehabilitating them,” as one organization put it. But it has to be one that employees feel invested in. As Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant, CAE, recently wrote in an Associations Now article on new CEOs changing the cultures of their associations, “people don’t resist change in general—they resist doing thing that don’t make sense to them, and more important, they resist doing anything where they primary reason is ‘because I said so.’”

So, yes, office politics exist, and they always will. But that doesn’t mean they have to become toxic—if they do, it’s likely a function of how little you’ve let everybody know that they get to play.

What do you do to create a culture in your organization where people can speak out without risk of backbiting and perceptions of unfairness? Share your experiences in the comments.

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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