If you take an informal survey about the characteristics of dysfunctional organizations, you will probably hear the word politics rise to the top of most peoples’ lists. In fact, many large companies are portrayed as bumbling oafs perpetually weighed down by the weight of a giant political anchor that taxes every decision and every action. The storyline continues that smaller, more agile, less politically burdened companies can take advantage.
But what is really behind office politics?
More than personal agendas
One of the more common reasons attributed to the presence of office politics is personal gain. There seems to be this prevailing thought that people are taking actions to benefit their own careers. People see decisions that they think are shady, and they conclude that there is some master plan at work.
Let me just put this one to rest quickly. In the vast, vast majority of cases, what people think is some grandmaster plan designed to build an empire is nothing of the sort. Despite cynicism in corporate environments, the majority of people are not inherently duplicitous. They don’t sit around thinking about how to manipulate thousand-variable equations such that they end up with all the power in the end. Put simply, it just isn’t the case that many workplaces are cut from the same cloth as our TV dramas would have us believe (I’m look at you, House of Cards fans).
The reality is that most people are legitimately trying to do the right thing. Their view of what is right is certainly colored by their own situation, but most people act faithfully on behalf of the company they serve.
Some common examples
When you note that people are promoting their friends, it is probably true. But think about it another way. People promote workers they trust. Where relationships are stronger, trust is more likely present. When people promote their friends, it’s likely more related to trust than some diabolical plan.
Another common storyline in corporate environments is leaders who take credit for the ideas of other people. While it has become a staple for Hollywood romantic comedies, the scenario is rarely as black and white. The creation process is all about iteratively working through ideas. Thoughts are seeded, and then they are revised and revised again until they become a polished idea. When you see your seed bloom into someone else’s idea, you are keenly focused on your contribution. But what if your interaction was but one of many? Rather than the person blatantly stealing credit, it is far more likely that the person believes that they are in fact responsible for stitching together a bunch of thoughts into the final product. Of course, this doesn’t make the behavior any less irritating, but the point is that it is typically not a part of some overt agenda.
Politics or something more basic?
I don’t want to suggest that behavior is always positive. But just because it isn’t productive behavior doesn’t mean the motivation is political. More typically, people act in the moment, and in very basic ways.
Most people, for example, don’t enter meetings with some personal agenda top of mind. If relations with other groups have been testy, they might be more sensitive to criticism that they perceive as outside snipes. So in the moment, when you offer up your feedback, the retort has very little to do with jockeying for power and more to do with responding to feedback poorly. Is the behavior good? No. But it isn’t part of some scheme either.
In other cases, people imagine that sharing of information happens for highly strategic reasons. That’s almost never the case. The more likely culprit? There are people whose natural role in social circles is that of the Information Broker. They are the person that everyone trusts their information with. You imagine that they backchannel select bits of information to gain political favor. But the more likely case? How do you think information gets shared? One person says something. The other person shares something as well. It’s a give and take. The most likely reason for information being shared is not some political orchestration but rather in-the-moment bartering for additional information.
Most behavior is not caused by some plot. Behavior is driven by social dynamics – in a meeting, in the hallway, or all alone in front of the computer answering emails. We tend to attribute a lot of the negativity to politics, but why?
In part, it’s because we resent that some people “play the game” better than we do. We naturally fall into the trap of explaining away our own failures or other peoples’ successes. They are not more capable; they are more compromised. They are not more savvy; they are more conniving.
We look at their butt kissing with disdain. Where they see relationship building, we see the actions of a spineless yes-man. We look down on socialization efforts. Where they see communication, we see endless glad-handing and fake smiles. We abhor the back channel conversations. Where they see information exchange, we see back biting.
The bottom line
Casting everything under a pall of politics allows us to not engage. It’s actually self-defeating behavior. When we attribute to malice basic social dynamics like building rapport and communicating, we are fundamentally telling ourselves that it’s ok to be ineffective in the workplace. What’s worse is that this self-defeating behavior breeds malice as we assume the worst possible intentions for people who are generally only reacting to workplace stimuli. The result is that we fail to do the things we ought to be doing, convincing ourselves all the while that we are somehow taking the moral high ground.
I am not suggesting that bad behavior is ok. I am, however, suggesting that bad behavior is usually attributed to something far less insidious than personal gain. I am also not suggesting that we all become political. But I am saying that some of the behavior we attribute to politics is really just apolitical social dynamics playing out through your own personal lens. If you can set aside your own biases, you might find that what you perceive as politics is really just social group dynamics.