Playing Office Politics Right

“It’s not fair!” lamented Sam to Alice. “The boss seems to favor Matt’s idea all the time. I put in all the hard work, do extra research and work late. What does Matt do? Cosy up to the boss and even hanging out. Isn’t the boss aware Matt is ‘playing politics’?”

If you are already in leadership, the above story might sound familiar. If you are new to leadership, be ready to go through the emotional roller coaster of leadership.

Let’s start with the fundamental question “What is office politics?”. Many would say it is a ‘bad thing’ but what is it, really? According to wikipedia, it is “It is the use of power and social networking within an organization to achieve changes that benefit the organization or individuals within it”. In this context, most of us would find interesting the word politics is associated with social networking. If we think about networking, it is about building relationship.

1) The meaning of an action is based on our perspective

Most of us can accept the idea of building relationship at work is a good thing but we don’t like the idea that this is seen as office politics especially when it is with our superior.

From a behavioural assessment, office politics or relationship building are the same; it is about being respectful to the other person, being considerate, asking and extending help when needed, sharing opinion so on and so forth. For some reason when we do these for our peers or direct report, it is ok but when we do this for our superior, it is deemed as ‘playing politics’. Office politics or relationship building then is a matter of perspective.

Apart from our perspective of it, we are bothered by how others judge us. We know people judge based on their perspective. The reality is people will have a positive perspective of us when it favours them and a negative perspective when it does not favour them.

As leaders, we need to be clear of our role and choose perspective that would support us. Just like taking an elevator up, the view (perspective) of the surrounding changes as it goes higher. You might try your best to explain to an onlooker of your new perspective but they can only interpret it based on their current perspective. As you move up the leadership ladder, the perspective changes and unless you are in the elevator, you will not be able to appreciate the perspective of those who are in it.


2) Policy, process and structure create order, not incredible performance

We are measured by performance in the workplace. There are those who feel that this can be achieved with sufficient policy, structure and process in place; networking is optional. Though this might sound good in theory, if we dig a little deeper we would realize, unless your skills are super niche (the organisation can’t function without you), people who are successful in organisations have good network. They know someone or they know someone who knows someone who would support them.

From an organisational design, policy, structure and process are in place to create clarity and order in the workplace. Without it, everyone will have their own ways of doing things (because everyone has their own perspective) and this will cause confusion, mistake and hinder the organisation’s growth. Policy, structure and process are merely the gears to move the organisation machinery. Networking is the lubricant that oils and ensure the machinery performs optimally. Think back to a situation when your leader is able to obtain a resource faster or even in an impossible situation because of his network.

As leaders we need to understand that in order to produce excellence, we need to be involved in matters beyond the system’s capability. Establishing network in the workplace is thus critical for leaders who desire excellence.


3) Be comfortable with emotion

We often downplay emotion at work because of our fear it might create problem. In the context of leadership, we would agree emotion at work is both good and bad. Good if it drives performance and bad if it hinders performance.

The task of a leader is to harness emotions into something good. If we take a step back, emotion is the fuel that powers an individual. Martin Luther King Jr. said it well “A great leader is not searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus”.

Organisation design competencies as a means for the employee to display the ‘right’ behaviour but would admit even if the employee know what is the right thing to do, ultimately it is up to the employee’s willingness to do it that makes a difference. Willingness is a matter of the heart where emotion resides.

As leaders we can either force or influence someone to do it. One approach produces a negative emotion, the other a positive one. Either way, emotion is at play. Leaders need to be comfortable with the issue of emotion because we are constantly creating it knowingly or unknowingly. Being interested in our superior’s matter shows we care. It also shows we are interested. This will lead to a positive emotion. To not be interested in our superior’s matter because we don’t want to be seen as ‘playing politics’ creates the opposite emotion.

It is then imperative for us to be mindful of the emotion we want to create, with our peers and superior.


4) Intention

Intention is personal. It is something only you can know for certain. As a leader, we need to take time to reflect on our action as a means to examine our intention, to be aware if we are playing games with ourselves or if we are doing things for the right reason. Too often we rush into a situation and justify our action based on what sounds good.

What matters most to a leader is their actions are aligned to their intention. Ultimately, we are our best judge when no one is around.


Where do I begin

Office politic is a subjective matter and as leaders we are aware the critical importance it plays to our success. It makes us recognize that the perspective we take towards it is the first things we need to come to terms with.

As an easy reference, to begin networking:

Step #1: Identify who directly or indirectly influence my success?

Step #2: What do they value that would increase their trust towards me? Is it competence? Is it being a confidant? is it my ability to get things done? What is it?

Step #3: Make time for them

Finally, enjoy your leadership journey as you connect with your superior and new alliances. Do share if this article made it easier for you  to ‘play politics’.

Do let me know what you think about this article. I value feedback in wanting to contribute more to the leadership community.



Leave a Comment