Office Politics? Who Cares?
by Jawn Lam
September 19, 2021
Durable Leadership Library
The most reliable source of pragmatic leadership insights.
When people work together, sooner or later, there will be friction in the interactions. This friction reveals itself in a number of forms. Interpretation of data can diverge. Opinions can differ on what should be the right processes and procedures. Principally, visions for the outcome may not perfectly align. When these points of friction emerge, the parties push and pull each other to advance their interests. Each party aims to have more influence over the essential factors (budgets, headcount, formal titles, etc.) that directly impact the outcome. This tug of war can be violently overt or passively discreet. Regardless of its visibility to any other observer, for the parties involved, the dissidence is unavoidably real. Regardless of the scope or scale of the issues at stake, that dissidence inevitably resolves in some form of competition for those essential factors. For the players in this competition, the game is called politics, and the prize is power.
Books on management rarely discuss power, but it is far from trivial. Where resources are scarce, those with power will decide how they will be allocated. When agendas differ, those with power will clarify the priorities. Where social interactions are inescapable, those with power will govern the results. Based on these abstract examples of the uses of power, it’s easy to see that power is ubiquitous. After all, resources are always scarce. Agendas will never perfectly align. In our professional lives, how many interactions are completely avoidable? Power is an omnipresent factor in all social systems. Perhaps there is no place where this is more immediately meaningful than in the social system we call our workplace.
To make vital decisions on how assets and activities should be coordinated, organizations implement tools from the disciplines of management and leadership. Implementing the practices from these fields saves a company from chaos. Tools such as the various ISO series, Motorola’s six sigma, and Toyota’s value stream mapping have made today’s managers more efficient than ever. Likewise, along with Porter’s five forces, Goleman’s emotional intelligence, and Cameron & Quinn’s competing values, today’s leaders have an abundance of frameworks to achieve greater effectiveness.
As a business grows in scope, scale, and complexity, the organization will require more managers and leaders to make those important decisions. Simultaneously, as individuals become more efficient managers and more effective leaders, their private desires for more responsibility and control will increase commensurately. Yet there will always be fewer seats at the top. This is where the previously discussed friction most clearly reveals itself. This is where the game of office politics becomes conspicuously consequential. And here lies one of the greatest challenges for professional development. As we climb higher on the corporate ladder, we will soon realize that the skills required for success as a manager/leader are not enough to propel us further.
All organizations need managers and leaders, but do all managers and leaders understand power?
Over the next series of posts, I will dive into the often avoided subject of office politics. These posts will cover a variety of topics related to organizational politics, such as negotiation techniques, interest trading, perception management, agenda manipulation, resource control, and much more. This will be more than a series of posts on academic management techniques. I want to uncover how managers leverage their accomplishments for career advancement. This will be more than a series of posts on leadership sensitivity. I want to discover the mechanisms used by effective leaders to achieve their visions in spite of their competition (outside or inside the organization).
I am curious to understand the social strategies and tactics used by senior executives to build, wield, and protect their political capital. I want to know how power is won.
Join me on this exploration, and to kick off the discussion, I have two questions.
- In your career, have you interacted with anyone who held the presiding position on paper but did not possess any constructive power?
- Conversely, have you interacted with anyone who did not officially have the ranking title but nevertheless commanded influence?
HBR Guide to Office Politics (HBR Guide Series)
HBR Guide to Office Politics (HBR Guide Series) [Dillon, Karen] on Amazon.com. *FREE* shipping on qualifying offers. HBR Guide to Office Politics (HBR Guide Series)
Power: Why Some People Have It-and Others Don't
Power: Why Some People Have It-and Others Don't - Kindle edition by Pfeffer, Jeffery. Download it once and read it on your Kindle device, PC, phones or tablets. Use features like bookmarks, note taking and highlighting while reading Power: Why Some People Have It-and Others Don't.
Workplace Poker: Are You Playing the Game, or Just Getting Played?
Amazon.com: Workplace Poker: Are You Playing the Game, or Just Getting Played? (Audible Audio Edition): Dan Rust, Dan Rust, Rick Adamson, HarperAudio: Audible Books & Originals