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Managing Organizational Politics in Your Workplace

Why organizational politics matter, and how they turn sour.

People are, by their nature, political animals. Organizations are basically political systems with members all trying to get ahead. When someone lobbies for a raise, or does a favor for another expecting something in return, they are engaging in organizational politics. When people self-promote, they are acting politically.

There’s nothing wrong with political behavior, or trying to get ahead and further your own ends, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the organization’s or team’s goals—and if it doesn’t violate any established norms, policies, or laws.

Here is the key: If employees are acting politically—engaging in self-serving behavior—and it benefits them, but also benefits the team or organization, that’s what we can call “functional political behavior.” However, when employees’ political behavior only benefits them while hurting the team’s or organization’s goals, that is “dysfunctional political behavior.”

A wise leader/manager tries to understand the factors that will tend to increase employee politicking in order to be able to better manage things and ensure that political behavior remains functional.

Following are 4 of the many factors leaders need to be aware of that increase the tendency toward political behavior in an organization:

  1. A Highly Competitive Environment. Competition often motivates people to try to get ahead by any means. This opens the door for political behavior, and increases the possibility of it being dysfunctional (e.g., taking credit for another’s work, cutting corners, etc.)
  2. Lack of Monitoring and Feedback. If employees are not being monitored and receive little feedback about processes and performance, they may try bending or breaking the rules to get ahead. For example, they may try to look busy, rather than actually being busy. (Fans of the movie Office Space might recall Peter Gibbons's comment about coming into the office each morning and staring at the computer for hours: "It looks like I’m actually working…”)
  3. Lack of Interdependence. If employees don’t have to rely on others’ help to do their jobs, it may create an “every person for him/herself” environment, rather than one that fosters cooperation.
  4. Rewarding the Wrong Thing. If employees are rewarded for looking good rather than performing well, it may trigger political behavior such as sucking up to the boss to get ahead.

What a Leader Can Do

Look closely at actions within your organization through a political lens. Consider the motivations of the people involved. Why did they do what they did? How could the situation, and the organizational politics involved, have been handled differently? Call out dysfunctional political behavior. The key is to allow workers to get ahead through functional behavior, and avoid dysfunctional forms.

References

Ferris, G. R., & Treadway, D. C. (Eds.). (2012). Politics in organizations: Theory and research considerations. Routledge.

Riggio, R.E. Daily Leadership Development. (2020). B&N Press.

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