How Office Politics Work

office politics tug of war
Because politics is an inevitable part of office life, it's good to know what it involves and how to play. See more pictures of corporate life.
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You don't have to run for elected office to be immersed in politics. Politics simply refers to the dynamics and struggles for power. Most human relationships involve some kind of back-and-forth play for power. We contend for control at home on a daily basis -- what to watch on TV, what to eat for dinner, where to go on vacation and so on. Around the office, where people with conflicting goals have to get along and careers are at stake, politics thrives.

Whether it's a struggle for control of the thermostat or getting a promotion, offices are notorious political battlegrounds. Even as you sit at your desk minding your own business, politics seeps through cubicle walls and saturates the workplace. According to most experts, no workplace is immune to struggles for power. If we wish to foster good working relationships, get things done or get ahead, experts argue that we should actively and consciously engage in office politics.


Does this mean we have to get our hands dirty to succeed in the business world? Office politics gets a bad name from the people who are most known for playing it. We all know the type -- corrupt, manipulative, insincere sycophants who vie for praise and promotions. Office politics can lend itself to power-hungry brownnosers and vicious behavior. But that doesn't mean you have to make unethical decisions to play the game effectively. Even the bosses we like and respect probably didn't get their promotions based solely on job performance. They also leveraged politics -- they may just be subtle about it.

Some people take to office politics naturally. You know the ones who are irresistibly likeable and don't appear to have a manipulative bone in their bodies. They always seem to get people to gladly cooperate on projects. For other folks, actively playing the politics game is uncomfortable and feels inherently insincere. Regardless of which category you fall into, it helps to learn how office politics works. At least it could clear up common misperceptions about the practice and help you reevaluate your own motivations and tactics.


Dirty Office Politics: Survival of the Fittest Office Politician

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Though office politics can get nasty, there are good reasons to pay attention to it.
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Although office politics is a fact of life, many people consider it insignificant or downright petty. You may have heard people rant about what they feel is dirty office politics. However, for better or worse, many experts consider it extremely important. Even if you're happy where you are and don't care to boost yourself up the corporate ladder or oust your boss, you should keep in mind that office politics affects day-to-day workplace dynamics.

It's so important that the category of organizational politics has blossomed into its own field of study within psychology. Here's why: The distribution of power and the appearance of fairness in the workplace impact how satisfied employees are with their jobs. Believing you and your opinions make a difference may make you happier in your career and in your life.


Office politics is at the core of all organizations. Paying attention to it can be just as important as fulfilling the responsibilities written in your job description [source: McIntyre]. If you aren't on the watch for it or don't tactfully engage in it, you could jeopardize your career and watch your hard work and loyalty go down the drain. If this sounds like an exaggeration, consider how things work in your own office. People who get promoted are probably heavily involved in office politics. They often voice suggestions for improvements and make themselves known. Those who consider politics beneath them keep to themselves and appear unfriendly or unmotivated, even if they work hard. When budget cuts are necessary, these people might be the first heads on the chopping block.

Worse still, without even knowing, you could be offending your coworkers or stepping on someone else's toes. When you take over a job, a project or even a nice office that previously belonged to a well-liked coworker, it might foster bitterness and make it harder to work with his allies. Being on the lookout for these issues and addressing them could help you make peace with people you might unintentionally be offending. Indeed, the authors of "Enlightened Office Politics" suggest that you owe it to your company to engage in its politics, because it's the necessary avenue to getting things done [source: Dobson].

Do you still think the pervasive presence of politics in the workplace is a corrupt system that rewards smarmy manipulators? A case can be made for rewarding good office politicians. Studies reveal that increased political skill leads to better job performance. Research shows that this applies both to people in upper-management jobs and to employees in lower-level jobs that don't require much personal interaction. Political skill proves to be the best overall predictor of job performance, surpassing intelligence and personality traits [source: Ferris].

So, you may get better at your job by honing your political skills. The trick is doing it without digressing to nasty tactics. Ethical office politics starts with being diplomatic with coworkers.


Surviving Office Politics: Dealing with Coworkers

Experts advise workers to take every opportunity to network in the work place.
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Whether you want to get things done, improve your professional reputation or just make your office a happy place to work, it's a good idea to foster good relationships with your coworkers. Although it's impossible to please everybody, reaching across to the person on the other side of your cubicle wall has some big advantages.

­Expand your sphere of friends and acquaintances so that you can call on them for help in the future. You may also know it as networking, and it plays a big part in surviving office politics. It's an age-old practice among businessmen and politicians that expands one's visibility and resources. Even if your next link is not above you in management, you never know who has influence with decision-makers [source: Essex]. But it's a two-way street -- they'll call on you for favors, too. And, this is a great way to start a professional relationship, as they'll probably be glad to reciprocate and return the favor later. Even if you never need a favor from them, you'll be establishing a solid reputation around the office as a team player.


Due to generation gaps, different interests, various departments and levels of management, office workers inevitably divide into factions and cliques. Their resemblance to high school cliques has not gone unnoticed, and ingratiating yourself with one can seem as important as it did in high school [source: Davidson]. However, experts advise against associating with just one group [source: Fisher]. Instead, it's best to make friends across the board and to distance oneself from a single group in particular. You can form alliances with a variety of people and groups to advance your goals in the future without alienating others.

Then there are the coworkers who don't want to partner with you and seem to insist on making you look bad. Maybe they're not out to get you, but it sure seems that way. Instead of sinking down to their level and risk entering the morally gray area of negative office politics, experts suggest that you confront the person calmly and rationally [source: Zupek]. And, if this doesn't work, that's when having allies around the office helps -- they might be able to warn you when a coworker is using underhanded tactics to hurt you behind your back [source: Lancaster].

It's tempting to make friends with coworkers by sharing the dirt you know on everyone else, but this isn't a good habit. Indulging in gossip will probably come back to bite you. It's considered unethical to perpetuate rumors that could damage someone's reputation, and the rumor could be traced back to you. Nevertheless, many experts say it doesn't hurt to listen as long as you don't chime in or spread it [source: Zupek]. Knowing what's going on may help you understand the power structure and influences in your office.


How to Play Office Politics: Using Office Politics to Get Ahead

stepping on others to get ahead
You don't have to step on your coworkers to get ahead.
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­I­mproving coworker relations is one thing, but if you want to make a big difference in a company, you'll probably have to aim high and compete for promotions -- at least this is how it works in the United States. This is ethically possible as long as you behave respectfully toward other people and you're willing to refuse to violate your own sense of morals -- even if it means losing your job. And there are other ways to ingratiate yourself with your boss aside from brownnosing.

Even though office politics runs rampant through all companies, every office is different. So you can't play office politics unless you know exactly how decisions are made at your workplace. Whether you just started a new job or are a long-term employee, you should look at the power infrastructure at your company.


Expert Louellen Essex suggests you study the culture and values of an organization. She also suggests adopting a role model you respect and who has attained a powerful position in your company. By studying his or her political skills and imitating his or her effective behavior, you're more likely to make a difference [source: Zupek].


Unless you're an expert office politician, you won't get anywhere unless you've proven yourself to some degree. To climb the corporate ladder, you usually can't rely on empty words and promises, but you must be able to impress the higher-ups with a good reputation backed by solid accomplishments. That's not to say your political skills can't help you do this. In fact, political skill might be the best tool. This is where the alliances you formed with coworkers really pay off. Landing a big account or succeeding at a large project usually requires help from all sides, and if you've done well, you can call your allies into action.

­Unfortunately, it's possible no one will notice your accomplishments unless you tell them and remind them. Essex suggests that you should occasionally brag -- as diplomatically as possible -- about your achievements even when you're not interviewing for an open position [source: Zupek]. If this seems difficult or even unnatural, try to at least convey how proud you are to have made a difference for the company.


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  • Davidson, Wilma, et al. "Most Likely to Succeed at Work." Macmillan, 2003. [Sept. 4, 2008]
  • Dobson, Michael Singer, Deborah Singer Dobson. "Enlightened Office Politics." AMACOM Division of American Management Association, 2001. [Sept. 4, 2008]
  • Dwyer, Kelly Pate. "How to Win at Office Politics" BNET.
  • Essex, Louellen, Mitchell Kusy. "Playing the 'Office Politics' Game." T+D; March 2008, Vol. 62, Issue 3.
  • Ferris, Gerald R. et al. "Political Skill at Work." "Organizational Influence Processes." Ed. Lyman W. Porter, et al. M.E. Sharpe, 2003. [Sept. 3, 2008]
  • Ferrris, Gerald R. "Political Skill At Work." Davies-Black Publishing, 2005. [Sept. 4, 2008]
  • Fisher, Anne. "Play office politics without getting dirty." CNNMoney. Nov. 30, 2007. [Sept. 4, 2007]
  • Lancaster, Hal. "Managing your career: You can be good at office politics without being a jerk." Wall Street Journal. Mar. 18, 1997.
  • McIntyre, Marie. "Secrets to Winning at Office Politics." Macmillan, 2005. [Sept. 4, 2008]
  • Rivenbark, Leigh. "Political Skill At Work." HRMagazine. Dec. 1, 2005. [Sept. 4, 2008]
  • Zupek, Rachel. "Office politics: How to play the game." CNN. July 16, 2008. [Sept. 4, 2008]
  • Zupek, Rachel. "Ways to win at office politics." CNN. March 10, 2008. [Sept. 4, 2008]