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Changing the Office Politics Game

Stop playing old games and start creating positive change in our organizations.

Key points

  • The automatic negative association with the term "politics" does office politics a disservice.
  • Effective office politics involve three components: emotional intelligence, systems thinking, and organizational change.
  • People of integrity need to contribute to office politics in order to drive positive growth.
Yan Krukov/Pexels
Source: Yan Krukov/Pexels

I’ve recently been doing interviews about my new book on workplace politics* and love how they turn into opportunities to further refine my thinking on the content—well after the “birth” of the book.

It’s like my special budding relationship with my book-baby!

In interviewing folks from different perspectives and industries, like Michael Matias of 20 Minute Leaders, Laura Eigel of You Belong in the C-Suite, Debra Adey and lisa Schmidt of Work Revolution, Holly Teska and Kristin Strunk of the Uplifting Women Podcast, and Jacquelyn Adams, blogger for IEEE, I began refining a new framework for how I think about workplace politics, which I’d like to share. As it continues to develop, I’d love to hear what you think about it.

What are office politics?

When we think of office politics, we have this automatic negative association with it. We think:

  • Playing games
  • Backroom deals
  • Selfish
  • Harmful
  • Ugly
  • Dirty
  • Breaking rules of moral engagement
  • Abuse of power

I’m sure you have plenty more words to add to this.

It’s a turn-off to most of us, and we end up wanting to disengage.

However, "politics" is really a neutral term—it all depends on how we apply it.

Here’s how I define politics: The application of high emotional intelligence to systems thinking in order to drive organizational results and change.

Let’s break this down into its three components:

1. High emotional intelligence

High emotional intelligence requires many abilities, but to effectively manage office politics, I often think of three requirements:

  • Understanding where you stop and where someone else starts. What I mean by that is knowing what you bring to any interaction, including your “baggage” (i.e., triggers based on past negative experiences), and also understanding what someone else might be bringing to this interaction that is not about you. You develop these skills through things like assessments, coaching, therapy, mentorship, supervision, training, and education. (Bonus: Whatever you can do for personal development to understand your values, goals, needs, strengths, and blind spots also helps your career.)
  • Meeting people where they are. Metaphorically, it’s the difference between (a) walking over to them, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them, and looking in the same direction to gain their perspective, versus (b) engaging in a tug of war where you are pulling the rope, hoping they’ll be dragged over to your side so you can win.
  • Reading the room. This is the ability to pick up the energy in an interaction—Is it tense or quiet? Do people appear comfortable speaking up? Are people raising their voices? Do people seem animated and excited? In reading the room, your goal may be to match positive energy, defuse negative energy, amplify important messages, or create a safe environment for people to speak up. (Being able to accomplish this successfully requires you to have the other two skills above.)

2. Systems thinking

You do not function alone in a vacuum. You are always in some kind of ecosystem of groups or layers of people (community, teams) who have formal and informal power policies and structures that dictate their behaviors, etc. Metaphorically, we can think of this just like fish in the ocean:

  • Sometimes they forget they are swimming in an ocean (their ecosystem).
  • There are other living things in that ocean that influence the ocean’s success.
  • There are structures with barriers and facilitators that also influence outcomes.

The same goes for you. Take a step back and assess all the ways you benefit from the system around you:

  • The way you contribute to the system
  • The barriers to your success in the system
  • The stuff you don’t see but know is there
  • The stuff you assume works one way but may also serve to work in other ways

(This evaluation of your system is often called an environmental scan.)

3. Driving organizational results and change

The goal of politics is to drive results and change. These are just some of the questions to assess when you are working to drive change:

  • How are certain results measured in your ecosystem?
  • What’s valued?
  • What’s your role or contribution, and what could it be?
  • Who needs to be part of that, and how can you include them to help you (i.e., your stakeholders, allies, advocates, sponsors, mentors, supervisors, customers, etc.)?

How to use these concepts to change the office politics narrative:

Putting the above three components you can have two paths:

  • Misuse them for personal gain.
  • Use them for larger-scale positive change.

Dirty (dishonest) politics

We, unfortunately, have too many examples of leaders who use the skills above to meet their own selfish needs, with no thought or care about the damage and destruction they leave in their path.

That behavior can be so bad it may even rise to the level of being bullying, conniving, manipulative, or emotionally and psychologically abusive.

High-integrity (honest, authentic, positive) politics

The good news is that there are many people who also meet the same criteria but do not wish to engage in harmful behaviors.

The bad news is that people in this group often refuse to engage in politics. They wish they could just function in a vacuum.

It’s wishful thinking and actually does do some harm. How?

When you work with groups of people, you need them to do their part, and they need you to do your part. What happens when someone doesn’t hold up their end of that unspoken bargain?

You will not drive exceptional results, you’ll feel ineffective, and you’ll miss out on opportunities. This affects you, your team, and your organization. And guess who wins? Uh-huh.

Bottom line:

Being a better leader involves changing the politics game by applying high emotional intelligence, strong systems thinking, and driving results that focus on positive organizational change.

This starts with you.

With me.

With all of us.


*The Millennials’ Guide to Workplace Politics was co-authored with Jennifer Wisdom, author and publisher of the Millennials Guide book series.

No part of this publication may be reproduced without the express written permission of the author. Copyright 2021 Mira Brancu, Ph.D.


Brancu, M. & Wisdom, J.P. (2021). Millennials' Guide to Workplace Politics. Winding Path, NY.

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