Overcome the Dangers of Office Politics
Unethical office politicians create perceived threats. They’ll suggest someone is out to get you. “Watch out for Joe!”
Vulnerability to unethical office politicians occurs when you wrongly believe they’re acting in your best interest. In reality, they’re working for themselves.
I’ll never forget a colleague saying how sorry they felt for our boss. “She thinks I’m her friend.” they said. In reality they were manipulating rather than supporting the boss. On another occasion, they said, “I can cut someone and they’ll bleed to death before they realize what happened.”
The genius of unethical office politicians is their ability to
make you think you’re acting for your benefit when you’re acting for theirs.
The goal of unethical office politicians is defensiveness on your part. Playing defense distracts from good offense. Rather than working to create new success, defensiveness causes you to protect current positions and past achievements.
It’s hard to move in positive directions when you’re in CYA (Cover Your Ass) mode. You spin your wheels while they get ahead.
- Drain creativity.
- Focus on threats.
- Include self-justifying language.
- Undermine others.
Ethical office politics:
Office politics is real; understanding and playing office politics ethically advances careers.
- Align with real power structures; influence influencers. People with power may not have official authorization. Decision-making seldom follows organizational charts.
- Avoid offending unofficial leaders.
- Never violate a confidence.
- Learn personal agendas.
- Respect what colleague’s value.
- Deliver the goods, most importantly. There’s no substitute for performance.
- Always act with the best interest of the organization in mind.
- Avoid unnecessary gamesmanship.
Highly political environments – cronyism, favoritism, manipulation – are never cured from the bottom up.
How can leaders navigate office politics?
What strategies have you seen office politicians use?
Great post! After reading the books such as, Fierce Conversations, and attending training I taught my staff specific strategies for effective communication. Then, when people came to me to complain about a colleague I coached them on how to have the conversation they needed to have. So, leaders need to model, teach, and coach their teams for effective communication. Thanks for the thoughtful post!
Thank you Jamie. You exemplify the bonus principle. Office politics is always managed from the top. Thanks for showing us how.
This post made my stomach turn over. I never wanted to experience this, but I did. If you have a long career, chances are this scenario will cross your path sooner or later. Just reading this post took me back to all those unpleasant feelings.
Thanks Dan, for touching on even the most difficult topics.
Thanks For the affirmation. Once in a while I trot this topic out. Like you, it stings me too.
Thank you for this post! I would also recommend the book “Mobbing: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions” by Maureen Duffy and Len Sperry (2012), which speaks to workplace bullying and how to foster an organization that does not perpetuate office politics that lead to bullying.
Thanks Scott. It’s always appreciated when added resources are suggested.
There is a 20-item checklist, a way to help identify potential psychopaths among us that was developed by Bob Hare, a prison psychologist who conducted remarkable experiments and eventually codified his findings. Jon Ronson has provides an excellent history and analysis in his new book, “The Psychopath Test”.
Below is the list of tendencies and an analytical tool to spot those who might be functioning psychopaths – there is a good bit of data that supports the thought that many who rise to senior executives do exhibit a lot of these tendencies.
The last two items relate specifically to criminals, but you don’t have to be caught to have “criminal versatility” — think Banksters and Countrywide.
Having mild tendencies in these directions doesn’t make you a psychopath, but high scores – more than 30 on Hare’s 40 point scale – should be a warning sign.
Think politicians – my “elected representatives” are DeMint and Graham. A few others come to mind, also.
1. Glibness, superficial charm
2. Grandiose sense of self-worth
3. Need for stimulation, proneness to boredom
4. Pathological lying
5. Conning, manipulative
6. Lack of remorse or guilt
7. Shallow affect
8. Callous, lack of empathy
9. Parasitic lifestyle
10. Poor behavioral control
11. Promiscuous sexual behavior
12. Early behavior problems
13. Lack of realistic long-term goals
16. Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
17. Many short-term marital relationships
18. Juvenile delinquency
19. Revocation of conditional release
20. Criminal versatility
Well, just a thought. This IS from criminal research and not designed to be applicable to business. One of these days, I will read up more on this stuff.
I didn’t mention the psychopath component of unethical politicians. thanks for adding it.
I had a conversation with a professor from a well known university in the South about this idea. He said recent research indicates that certain parts of the brain light up when we make ethical choices. The brains of those who backstab don’t light up like most people’s . He said he doesn’t have much hope for those who frequently and skillfully employ unethical office political maneuverings.
However, we still have to deal with it.
Hmm, perhaps more than just parts of our brains grow darker when we make unethical choices…
Graham and DeMint…aka Dumb and Dumberer…my god, psychopaths indeed. But, hey, they keep getting reelected by the folks in South Carolina…something in the water?!
Here is some additional information on this same thread: In general, corporations are defined with basic designs that make them creating billionaire status for a few, livelihoods for many, and goods for the people. That is the theory.
In the US, misreadings of the law have given these entities the legal status of “a person” with all the rights, privileges, and protections that “people” are granted. But corporations are not held accountable for actions. It’s sole purpose is to produce profits for its shareholders.
Many of the behavioral traits of an average corporation (and often its main senior management) are found in the DSM-IV, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
These behavioral psychopathic traits are:
1. Callous unconcern for the feelings of others.
2. Incapacity to maintain enduring relationships.
3. Reckless disregard for the safety of others.
4. Deceitfulness: repeated lying and conning others for profit.
5. Incapacity to experience guilt.
6. Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behavior.
These are the behaviors that are used to categorize people on the far end of the sociopathic scale of being psychopathic.
And it is the people who lead these corporations that define some or most of its actions.
There is that old “normal scale” from good to bad that would probably show a normal distribution of companies on the scale. There are certainly some that exhibit a high level that probably should be committed to a criminal institution, and there are lots of calls for them to be held accountable for destroying the global economy and the environment in their quest for profits and power.
Did I mention Jim DeMint and Lindsay Graham?
Hey Dr. Scott, you’ve outdone yourself today! Plus you’re scaring the crap out of me… I’m running for cover. 🙂
You can run, Dan, but you cannot hide.
They can track your phone, monitor your email, and send drones to get you. No, NOT the NSA, the pathologicals.
And just because you aren’t paranoid does not mean that they are not out to get you!
HaHa!! I don’t know who’s more strange… you or me. Today, I’m voting for you. 🙂
You’re taping into my paranoid gene… I think I know what you’re getting at and so do I! Gotta run, I just heard a strange noise. I think someone is watching me.
Imagine what could all be accomplished if the unethical politicians worked for harmony, instead of discord?
When I read your list of ethical political tactics, for me it came down to two words … respect and integrity. Respect for self and others and always acting in a way where getting caught is never a concern; two tactics that work just as well outside of work as at work.
Thank you Laurie. I particularly enjoy the idea that we can always act in ways where getting caught is never a concern. We shouldn’t have to whisper, hide, or cover our tracks. Always act in ways that make you proud of yourself. Powerful truth.
There is also real value in being known as leader who works to rise above that. one of my colleagues tells me she respects how I “put up my hoodie” and ignore the peripheral politics and focus on the work. That doesn’t mean being naive… but not playing into it.
Bingo Karin! Doug Conant former CEO agrees completely. Do the work! Be aware of the politics but do your work.
Laurie, I love your thoughts about integrity and respect!
Thanks for the good word Ellen!
Crossing over into the dark side are we today!
Your former colleague who appeared to savor the cut and bleed reminded me of a former ‘leader’ who, on a parallel track, opined that the metaphoric knife was much more personal because you could see the person as you twisted it.
Moving into the light…the car mirror analogy comes to mind too. If we are spending more time dwelling on our rear view mirror than attending to road ahead, then we have some unfinished business to deal with…directly. And, with the rear view mirror, objects in mirror want to believe they are larger (more important) than they actually are…still gotta deal with them though.
How to deal, shine a light on it and lean into it…first time round, privately, second time round publicly, third time round, involve personnel processes.
Thanks for another colorful contribution, Doc.
Love the rear view mirror analogy. Dang, the past seems to get bigger the more I look at it!
Secrecy is almost always counterproductive in organizations. Excluding personnel issues, propitiatory secrets and such. Organizations filled with too many secrets likely have too many inequities.
Perhaps we can short circuit the whole thing with an illegal bug… (kidding of course)
I’m in the midst of a highly political workplace. Very unpleasant. I agree with your comment that political workplaces can’t be cured from the bottom up, but one strategy that is working to help keep the politics toned down has been to find others who are the target of the politics, and band together to call out the individuals who are guilty when they are shoving knives in others’ backs. When you have a group of people who have one anothers’ backs, the solidarity makes everyone feel stronger.
We may not be able to solve the politics problem at a peer level, but we can work together to manage it.
Thank you Sir.
Good to write this this out. I find it sad that this must be clarified, but I rather see it talked and discussed than not. It reminds me of how Dave Ramsey talks about running their business on the Golden Rule. Not compromising to get ahead etcetera.
By staying true, we do not have worry what face we are showing.
There was a time when I worked in an industry where everyone was out for themselves. You had no friends… it was a shark tank. What I did was to just show up, be respectful to everybody, do my job the best I could and leave.
Like someone said earlier, there are places where you cannot correct this wrong. All you can do is to try to lead by example and treat work as it is: a place where you’re giving your services to benefit people who need of your talents.