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7 Rules for Political Skill and Power in the Workplace

Zero political skill equals zero power or influence.

Key points

  • Learning organizational politics helps employees protect their own interests and advance their careers.
  • Politics are ubiquitous in the workplace, and those who avoid learning "the rules of the game" need to start with the basics.
  • Playing good office politics includes picking one's battles wisely, accepting unfairness, and learning how to adapt.

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re here because you read my last blog post about organizational politics and why you can’t afford to ignore them or write them off, at least not if you want to protect your interests and advance your career while working for an organization. I concluded that post by promising to discuss the “rules of the game” this time around, so here is the fulfillment of my promise.

Keep in mind, though, that this is not intended to be an exhaustive list, which wouldn’t fit into a single post. It’s intended to be a good start, especially if you have typically shunned politics at work in the past and need to start with the basics.

Rule #1: Take part or get taken apart

It was former Wyoming senator Alan Simpson who once said, “Take part or get taken apart,” and it’s the perfect summary of this first rule, which the entirety of my last post was devoted to. All of the other rules here are irrelevant without it, so it may be a good idea to read that article first if you haven’t already.

Rule #2: Pick your battles wisely

Because politics is ubiquitous in the workplace, not every battle is equally worth engaging with actively. Some issues will naturally be more important to you than others and everyone is limited in how much mental bandwidth and political capital they have.

We need to distinguish, however, between active engagement and passive engagement. It’s true you shouldn’t actively engage with every political issue in the workplace. But issues that don’t seem relevant to you at first may in fact turn out to be, and people who have an apprehension toward (or aversion to) workplace politics are not typically the best judges of which is which. For this reason, it’s best to passively engage with issues that pass through your radar even as you limit the ones you actively engage with. Passive engagement means that you simply keep your ear to the ground and try to stay aware of what’s going on. Someday you may be glad you did.

Rule #3: The world and the workplace is not a just and fair place

In 1980, social psychologist Melvin Lerner wrote the book, quite literally, on the just-world hypothesis in The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion. The just-world hypothesis is basically the belief that we live in a world that’s fair, in which everyone ultimately is rewarded or punished based on what they deserve—but this hypothesis just isn’t true. To make this point in my business classes I pose the question, “Raise your hand if you’ve never had a bad boss.” In most cases, no one in the room raises their hand, and in the rare cases where hands do go up it’s maybe one or two people. As a follow-up, I’ll ask, “Raise your hand if you’ve had bosses that were not as smart, ethical, or high-performing as you.” Most people in the room reach for the sky, some with both hands! In a world as just and fair as we’d like it to be those responses wouldn’t happen. How bad can it get in the real world? I’m reminded of a managing partner in a law firm who was heard to have said, “I love hiring female attorneys. They’re smarter, work harder, and you can pay them less! Hahaha!”

Many expert manipulators know that the best people don’t always get the best jobs, but they’re more than happy to promote other people’s belief in this notion if it helps them attain more for themselves. I’m not saying there’s no correlation between success and all the things we’re told lead to it: talent, intelligence, and hard work. But the correlation there is modest while the correlation between success and political skill, as well as between success and luck, is high. Hard work should by all means be encouraged but believing that hard work alone leads to success is not only unrealistic, it’s actually harmful to your cause.

Rule #4: Colleagues can become competitors

This one isn’t very well understood, partly because it’s often interpreted as encouraging ruthlessness and backstabbing. It’s more about being aware and cautious.

Structurally, organizations are clearly not flat; they are triangles. As people on the lower levels ascend, there is less and less room the higher up you go. Sooner or later, you may find yourself competing, intentionally or unintentionally, with your colleagues for various positions or opportunities.

I know an individual who was confident they were the shoo-in for a higher position that opened up in their organization. They were so certain they were going to get it, in fact, that they went to a colleague who wasn’t planning on applying and convinced them to apply. Why they did such a thing, I’m not entirely clear; maybe they wanted to appear generous and supportive. What ended up happening was that the colleague who didn’t plan on applying got the job. It’s now many years later and I’m still in touch with this person who lost out. Sadly, they are still the subordinate of the aforementioned colleague, whom they now hate even though they are the cause of what happened.

Again, this isn’t about manipulating or backstabbing your colleagues with malice. It’s about being honest with yourself about what you want and being aware that one or more of your colleagues may want the same thing. The person I just told you about knew they wanted the job. They wanted it so badly that they still resent their colleague for having gotten it. Unfortunately, they have no one to blame but themselves for ignoring Rule #4. They probably also forgot about Rule #3.

Rule #5: Be gracious in defeat

As the story above illustrates, sometimes you just won’t get what you want. When that happens, if you react poorly it will only validate the outcome in other people’s minds. If you react graciously, though, it will often work in your favor later.

Here’s another story. I know another individual (yes, I know many people, it’s part of my network power) who competed for a certain position at an organization. They didn’t get it, but they were very gracious in defeat. Later, they went for a different position in the same organization, and the support for them in this other position was overwhelming and decisive. This may have been for numerous reasons, but I’m sure their graciousness in the face of defeat didn’t hurt.

This doesn’t just apply in situations where you personally “lose.” It also applies to situations where you’re generally not pleased with the outcome—for example, things that happen to other people or to the employees as a whole. I’m not saying to be fine with situations you don’t approve of. You should definitely resolve to do something about things you’re unhappy about. But you can disagree with something and still act graciously about it, and I’m speaking here of most situations within the range of normal organizational politics. Extreme situations such as inhumane working conditions, abuse, or harassment are a different matter entirely.

Rule #6: Recognize that politics sometimes works in your favor

People often complain that it’s “politics as usual” when things don’t go their way. What they don’t realize is that it’s also “politics as usual” when things do go their way, but they’re so conditioned to associate politics with negative outcomes that they don’t recognize this. On these occasions, it might have been that they were previously gracious in defeat (Rule #5), or maybe they picked their battles wisely (Rule #2), or maybe they’re better at playing politics than they realize. It could have been a combination of factors, including luck. But make no mistake, politics was involved. Yes, I’m sure they also did a good job, but that’s rarely the only reason (Rule #3).

Also, even though many people associate organizational politics with dysfunction, the fact is that it can sometimes be healthy. This happens when lines of communication are open and fluid, there's some semblance of due process, people’s grievances are heard and addressed—not perfectly, but enough. This is why when people sometimes say to me, “We don’t have politics at our company [for X, Y, Z reasons],” I respond by saying, “Yes, you do. You just have good politics.”

The reason Rule #6 matters is the more you understand that good politics or effective use of political skill makes good results possible, the more you can help orchestrate positive workplace outcomes by design, and less by accident or luck.

Rule #7: Be flexible and adaptable

No matter what your workplace goals, and what your plans for achieving them are, you have to be willing to pay attention and be flexible because there’s only so much you can control. For example, let’s say that you’ve been trying to convince a higher-up to get you onto a project that you really want. Suddenly and unexpectedly, that higher-up leaves the company and with them goes all the effort you put into getting on that project. If you really want it, you’re going to have to adapt and come up with a different approach. In some ways, this is similar to the idea in Rule #2 of passively engaging and keeping your ear to the ground. Try to stay on the lookout for signs that things may be shifting at your organization and that you may need to make adjustments. Sometimes, taking a hit or loss may be unavoidable. Just remember Rules #5 and #6 and keep your eye on the long game.

Poor Machiavelli is misunderstood

If any or all of these rules seem Machiavellian, that’s understandable. But if the thought of that seems unsettling, it’s because Machiavelli is actually misunderstood. Far from advocating ruthlessness and exploitation, he wanted people to understand how politics really worked so they could protect themselves. “I’d like to teach them the way to hell,” he once wrote to a friend, “so they can steer clear of it.” Writing his most famous book, The Prince, as if it were a how-to manual for the Medici was his way of showing people the “way to hell” without arousing suspicion towards himself in a politically turbulent time.

Here you have, then, seven rules for avoiding the hell that can be created by bad workplace politics. In my next post, I’ll describe four specific dimensions of political skill that you can cultivate to help make your work-life something more in the direction of heaven than hell.

Craig Barkacs, professor of business law and ethics in the Master’s in Executive Leadership and MBA Programs at the University of San Diego School of Business.