Playing Office Politics Without Selling Your Soul

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Politics is a dirty word. But office politics are unavoidable; as Aristotle noted, “man is by nature a political animal.” Whether you participate in them or not, politics have a big influence on what happens to you, your projects, and your team, so it’s hard to be indifferent to them.

To borrow from the political scientist, Harold Laswell, office politics can be understood as the unwritten rules that determine who gets what, when, and how — a promotion, a budget for a project, a say in the boss’s decisions — and who doesn’t. This is why we dislike politics so much: when our fate depends on unwritten rules — especially when they conflict with official, stated rules and make the system seem rigged or at least hypocritical — things are bound to seem arbitrary and unfair.

Unsurprisingly, research shows that when employees perceive their workplace as more political, they are less engaged, less productive, and more likely to quit. And yet, a more effective way of dealing with office politics is to engage in them — playing the game, instead of complaining about it. Fortunately, not all politics are bad, and there’s a way to play the game without selling your soul.

  • Make Your Enemies Your Allies

Much of what we mean by corporate “culture” provides clues for understanding office politics. Culture is the tapestry of taken-for-granted assumptions, values, beliefs, norms, and habits that determine “the way we do things around here.” Some aspects of culture are desirable traits that organizations are proud to proclaim (“We are a high performance organization.” “We stand for diversity and inclusion.”). Others are not (“We are conflict avoidant.”). The term “politics” is used to describe certain aspects of this dark side of culture. Learning to decode, and speak, this secret language of organizations is pivotal to your career survival and to becoming a major player at work.

So what is the difference between good and bad politics?

Bad politics are pretty easy to identify. They include the wrangling, maneuvering, sucking up, backstabbing, and rumor mongering people use to advance themselves at the expense of other people or the organization. Bad politics are, at the heart, about promoting oneself by any means necessary. And really bad politics are about being sneaky, perhaps even Machiavellian or immoral, to intentionally harm someone else for personal gain.

Good politics, on the other hand, involve advancing one’s interests but not to…

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