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Annie Hayes



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Office politics is not a game of chance


Office politics is often portrayed as negative or damaging to an organisation generally thought of as the domain of backstabbers, gossip mongers or empire builders, but says a new report it can actually bring positive benefits.

In a turnaround from Roffey Park’s original findings in 2002 which found that office politics can reduce organisational productivity, create a lack of trust, increase internal conflict and lead to greater resistance to change this latest study describes how politics can be used constructively and why organisations should encourage this.

The study argues that politics can be used in the following ways:

• To unblock barriers to change
• Create greater buy-in to key projects
• Produce greater organisational cohesion
• Speed up decision making
• Unblock creativity drains

According to the study author, political actors must possess key qualities, including self, strategic and political awareness, honesty, integrity, judgement, relationship-building skills, mental and emotional dexterity, analytical skills, a willingness to act and an ability to read the power structures.

These skills can be adopted to help would-be political actors steer their way towards constructive political behaviour.

Having these skills in place is not enough on its own, however, the report argues that constructive politics does not happen by chance. Leadership and organisational type all play a part.

Private sector organisations are more likely to foster a culture in which office politics can be used to positive effect while public sector organisations are less conducive to constructive politics because the processes are too bureaucratic and procedural, says the report.

Author Linda Holbeche claims that the distinction between constructive and destructive politics is not so much the games played or the strategies deployed, but the intention behind them.

“Politics is a fact of life in organisations. People will deploy political skills and use their power and influence to enhance or protect their interests. However, constructive protagonists use politics to achieve a beneficial outcome for others as well as themselves. These people certainly exist in organisations but we’re more likely to know them as effective strategists, skilful influencers or even powerful leaders,” she said.

Of the 856 managers and HR professionals surveyed over half, 58% said they had experienced the use of constructive office politics while 61% admitted to having engaged in political behaviour with a positive outcome.

Doubters (32%), however, said that it simply isn’t possible to use office politics constructively saying that human nature is intrinsically selfish and people abuse their role power.

“The organisational challenge is to create a culture which encourages the use of constructive political behaviour rather than the more negative, self-serving type. For this to work, each individual’s agenda must be aligned to the organisational goals,” said Linda Holbeche.

2 Responses

  1. Organisational politics: inevitable and potentially beneficial
    Linda Holbeche’s research and the conclusions she reaches are important and timely. By convention, overt political behaviour is not what one would expect to see championed as a vital component of effective leadership. Organisational politics are usually thought of in terms of such things as conflicting interests, self-serving behaviours and ‘spin’. In contrast, models and stories of effective leadership are usually constructed in terms of co-operative mindsets, organisation-enhancing behaviours and open, honest communication.

    However, differences inevitably exist between the various interest groups that make up organisations, in terms of their values, beliefs, knowledge and interpretations of organisational ‘reality. Coupled with this, the organisation’s most significant decisions involve the acquisition, deployment and management of scarce resources in an uncertain environment. Taken together, these two factors make a potent combination that has a critical impact upon the ways in which decisions are made and business gets done. In particular, scarce resources, coupled with differing interests make conflict central to the ways in which organisations operate, results are achieved and change is brought about.

    Whether managers choose to engage with it or not, political activity is a natural dynamic of organisations, through which these differing interests are played out on a day-to-day basis. More than this though, if carried out with integrity, politics can be organisationally beneficial; so using their power to influence outcomes is an essential part of a leader’s task. Where differences are dealt with in self-serving and manipulative ways, which ignore or ride roughshod over other people’s interests and the wellbeing of the organisation, negative political game playing comes to the fore. However, where these same dynamics are played out in ethical, organisationally enhancing ways, acting politically provides one of the keys for transforming ordinary performance into extra-ordinary performance.

  2. Office Politics
    Maybe just me, but I have yet to come across an arena in which politics are seen to be beneficial to the up & coming staff (or those who wish to create change.) It is used as a tool to “keep down” those who aspire to better things.
    The architects of the “Office Politics” tend to be middle/senior management who may have most to lose by encouraging change; or, it may be due to a lack of self-esteem that nobody else can suggest change, but them.
    Your thoughts, everyone………

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Annie Hayes


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