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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Workplace Politics

When is organizational politics played in a good or bad way?

Key points

  • Organizational politics is a way of life in the workplace. It's how positively the game is played that matters.
  • Sometimes similar-appearing political behaviors can be good, bad, or just plain ugly.
  • The key to organizational politics is to use them to get ahead, benefiting the organization, colleagues, and self.

Let’s face it. Every workplace is full of organizational politics – people trying to get ahead, to get an advantage. The competitive workplace compels us to engage in self-serving behavior as we advance, make more money, and be recognized. By its very definition, organizational politics is self-serving behavior. And, when we hear the term “organizational politics,” we immediately think that it’s a bad thing (“Get me out of this horrible, political environment!”).

However, political behavior in the workplace – trying to get ahead – doesn’t have to be bad. It’s really about how we play the political game. Do we do it effectively, without harming others or negatively impacting the organization, or do we engage in dysfunctional politics – behavior that helps us but hurts everyone else?

Let’s look at some examples of workplace political behavior and see how essentially the same behavior can be good, bad, or just plain ugly.

Who’s to Blame? Imagine that a major mistake has been made, and your boss wants to know who is responsible.

Good Politics: Rightfully owning up if you were to blame. If you know who is responsible, there is nothing wrong with pointing out who is at fault. This is good because it prevents you, or an innocent party, from being blamed.

Bad Politics: “Passing the Buck” by saying, “It wasn’t me!” while covering up for the actual culprit.

Ugly Politics: Scapegoating – blaming another person who is not at fault because you don’t like the person.

Image Building (Authentic or Fake?). Everyone wants to shine in their organization.

Good Politics: There’s nothing wrong with extolling your virtues – letting your boss and others know the good things you have accomplished and the essential skills you possess (don’t overdo it!).

Bad Politics: Discrediting others by pointing out others’ faults so that you look good by comparison (“I may not have a college degree, but I’m smarter than him!”). Or you are making up things about yourself that aren’t true.

Ugly Politics: Mudslinging – bringing up negative (and likely false) information about others so that you look good in comparison.

Workplace Alliances (Who’s Your Ally?). We all know that it helps to have a friend or ally in the workplace, and it helps to have someone else have our back.

Good Politics: Creating a mutually beneficial alliance with another person. You help them, and they help you.

Bad Politics: Favoritism – helping an undeserving person get ahead simply because that person is your friend or ally.

Ugly Politics. Forming a one-way alliance so that the other person helps you get ahead, but you don’t support them, or you get ahead at their expense.

Making Demands and Bargaining. Sometimes in the workplace, you need to demand that some action be taken, or you may have to offer an exchange to get what you want.

Good Politics. Asserting yourself. Providing rational reasons or holding your ground until you get what you want.

Bad Politics. Threatening to retaliate if the other party doesn’t comply, which amounts to blackmail.

Ugly Politics. Sabotage! Bringing the work to a halt or purposely messing up the work unless you get what you want.

There’s Only One Winner, or is There? In the highly competitive workplace, there is a common belief that there is only one winner and one loser when trying to get ahead – that it’s a zero-sum game. While that is often the case, it is an excellent strategy to strive toward win-win rather than win-lose scenarios.

Competing for scarce resources in an organization, such as desirable jobs or a larger budget share, should be approached first by a how-can-we-all-benefit attitude. If that’s impossible, then can we reach a compromise? It is possible to avoid having one or a few people get ahead at others’ expense in many instances.

More from Ronald E. Riggio Ph.D.
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