Surviving company politics

by 13 May 2008

Jeff Pfeffer, a professor of organisational behaviour at StanfordUniversity, said: “Rather than striving for a company without politics, which isn’t going to happen, I advise managers to learn how to manage power better.”

Working hard and being committed to the good of the organisation can leave you stuck in your job while others are promoted. Leading courageous, innovative projects can generate resentment that hurts your career. Providing outstanding loyal service to the existing CEO can leave you as part of an unwelcome ‘old guard’ when the CEO leaves.

These injustices can make you angry, but wishing office politics didn’t exist is not useful. An organisation has many faces and one of those faces is the political one. As students of organisational dynamics, human resource professionals should know better than anyone that they, and the managers they support, need at least basic political skills.

People who end up bitter and cynical are often the people who haven’t been taught how organisational politics work. Some simple understanding of the mechanisms can go a long way to taking the poison out of politics.

There are good and bad politics. Asking a powerful manager for input on an HR program is the smart thing to do even if you don’t need their advice. Spreading rumours about a rival is unethical and to be avoided.

There are many situations in which the balance between what is right and what is wrong is not so clear and you are bound to feel uneasy – being able to learn from those feelings and make the right calls is part of political skill.

There are also situations which are ambiguous. If a manager condemns a project as a failure, is that an honest judgement or is their view coloured by how that project affects them? Politics isn’t like accounting or engineering where there are usually clear answers. We have to use informed judgement and keep an open mind.

The best way to learn political skills is from mentorship. All managers, including HR managers, should have connections to more seasoned people who can help them recognise and respond to political factors.

Another useful skill is observation. Jonathon Gosling of ExeterUniversitysuggests going to meetings and not talking, just observing. See who speaks, who is listened to, and what topics are pursued and which ignored. Investing time in observation is just as valuable as investing time in taking a course.

Reflection is another critical component of learning political skills. Don’t just bemoan office politics; take the time to really understand the dynamics and what kind of actions will make things better.

The bad news is that as managers reach senior positions the swirl of politics can overwhelm them. Sometimes you just end up on the losing side of a dispute or a merger or a competition for promotion. Avoid being swamped by the feeling that you were betrayed. Stuff happens – getting upset about it is optional.

The good news is that many managers are successful politically because they are kind to others, go the extra mile for the organisation and do good work. If people like and respect you, then your chance to be influential improves dramatically.

In fact a study at a boys school showed that the boys seen as most likeable had the highest status. This is contrary to the Hollywood image of high-status kids as nasty brats who bully the others.

The other good news is that Jeff Pfeffer is working on a new version of his outstanding book on politics in organisations. Keep an eye open for that one, it’s bound to be essential reading.

By David Creelman, CEO of Creelman Research. Email: