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Phil Anderson

Ashridge Business School

Faculty

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Office politics: what HR practitioners need to know

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"In a 2012 book, 50% of respondents described office politics as being constructive rather than destructive."

Large or small, multinational or family-owned, public, private or third sector – every workplace has ‘office politics’ in one form or another.

Some HR practitioners might consider office politics a subject best avoided through fear of becoming too embroiled in others’ “games”. Their current role is more often likely to be passive  – either accepting or ignoring what’s happening – rather than helping others to understand more about power and politics.

We believe, however, that HR practitioners could be in an ideal position to help others  understand how organisations truly work. From their standpoint looking over the whole organisation, they can see how decisions are made, and could advise others how to move beyond the corrosive, ‘dark’ side, of office politics and harness the power of what we call “Positive politics”

So how are office politics generally perceived within organisations – and what can HR people do to improve their own understanding as well as help others navigate through what is often a confusing maze?

Constructive or destructive?

Often employees will make comments which highlight the negative side of office politics, for example:

“Too much politicking goes on around here”

“My boss favours some individuals in the team too much; even when things go wrong it rarely seems to be their fault”

“You can’t get anything much done in this department unless you play the politics game.”

Many of the participants we meet at Ashridge would say politics is about ‘dirty tricks’ and is bad for the organisation.

A recent survey suggests, however, that these negative perceptions may be shifting. In ‘Dealing with People, Power and Politics at Work (Clarke, 2012), 50% of respondents described office politics as being constructive rather than destructive – a significant shift from the 20 per cent figure in a survey three years earlier.

What this suggests is that office politics is often about how you see things. Some people may describe it as “a noble and higher activity, which underpins human co-operation”, while others may view it as “Kissing up and kicking down”.

In difficult economic times, when there are high levels of organisational change, office politics can become even more pervasive. There are whispered conversations in corridors, discussions behind ‘closed doors’ and attempts to influence events in favour of one department, individual or another.

Unfortunately, in many organisations issues of power and influence are not openly discussed and some of the politicking that takes place can be highly divisive. Very few businesses offer learning opportunities which could help individuals understand their own political and influencing skills (and most importantly how they can improve them).

One of the key barriers of course is that most people are completely resistant to engaging with office politics – perhaps because they feel they have been passed over, left out of the loop or out-manoeuvred in the past. 

Indeed, our research reveals that up until now, it’s a subject that has even been taboo in business school circles. Buchanan and Huczynski’s (2010) “Organisational Behaviour” book, includes a chapter on ‘Power and Politics’, where they note that politics as a skill has been neglected by business schools and management training providers.

Our approach

Ashridge Business School is moving away from this past reluctance to engage with the subject and has developed a tool which aims to help people develop awareness of the positive side of politics.

The Positive Political Players questionnaire, designed by Phil Anderson and Alex Davda, explores an individual’s aptitude for politics (how skilled they feel they are), their attitude (do they like or dislike politics), their approach (if they behave overtly or covertly) and why they take action on politics (for their own benefit or for their organisation’s benefit). The questionnaire also asks individuals to consider the political landscape within their organisation by inviting them to assess how people, in general, behave with respect to their attitude, approach and action towards politics.

This tool combines political skill and political style from individual and organisational perspectives. Individuals receive feedback from colleagues on their personal style and are able to determine how they might change their approach to be more successful in their organisation – and are also able to build a picture of how the political landscape is perceived by others. Pulled together across a large number of people on a leadership programme or through another OD intervention, the information that comes out of the questionnaire can also give HR professionals an overview of how  large numbers of employees view their organisation’s political landscape.

A role for HR?

Becoming more adept at office politics is a journey which involves individuals developing a better understanding of power and influence and how these can be deployed to good effect in organisational life. 

HR professionals could support this exploratory journey by helping colleagues across the business reframe the way they see politics. An important first step is for HR professionals to recognise themselves that politics are part of organisational life and that it is possible to have a sense of integrity about what you do and to use your political awareness and network positively.

The following five tips will help HR people begin to develop a better understanding of  office politics. They are are also a useful starting point for stimulating conversations within the business about how politics can be used more positively.

1. Accept that office politics exist

You might envy those who sail through each day putting in little effort but still seem to rise up the ladder of your organisation. The fact is, that to ensure your progress, you have to play the game, and office politics is here to stay. You can’t ignore it: to win a game, you have to be part of it. And, don’t forget it CAN be positive for all!

2. Understand your organisation

To move ahead in any organisation you must understand its structure, its position on contentious issues and its goals for the future. Learn who the influencers are and where the organisation’s priorities lie. Knowing this will help you distinguish the most important people to “cultivate” and also the correct way to respond in the best interests for you and your organisation.

3. Influence your outcomes

If you’re trying to sell an idea that is radical, new or controversial, it is advisable to have the majority of decision-makers on your side before you begin. Otherwise, you could run the risk of failure or of damaging your reputation. Persuading the most influential stakeholders to your point of view will help you influence others.

4. Behave ethically at all times

Stay on the straight and narrow. There is a fine line between what is ethical and what is not. Dirt sticks, so the best way to protect your reputation is to avoid trouble in the first place. Again, make sure you know where the organisation stands and in what direction it is moving. Always ask yourself: “If they knew my plans, would they let me proceed?” If they can see you are doing it for the benefit of the organisation, then some would say that is an ethical approach.

5. Promote your accomplishments

Be proud of your accomplishments. Make sure that your own efforts are recognised and noted by those who matter. Although it might feel uncomfortable, there is nothing wrong with advertising your success. So, watch how others do it, learn their techniques and find out which form of self-promotion works best for you.

If more attention was paid to understanding and recognising issues of power and influence within organisations, politics would look less like a maze and more like a beautiful English country garden – inviting, uplifting and of benefit to all.

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Phil Anderson

Faculty

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