The right kind of office politics—and how to use it to get things done

Whether you participate in them or not, office politics are pervasive, unavoidable, and often the key to getting things done, write Robert Kaiser, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, and Derek Lusk for Harvard Business Review.

Kaiser is the president of Kaiser Leadership Solutions, Chamorro-Premuzic is the CEO at Hogan Assessments, and Lusk is a business psychologist.

Although politics may seem like a "dirty word," office politics can be more about consensus building rather than "backstabbing," they write.

Like corporate culture, office politics usually encompass a set of unsaid assumptions, norms, and habits that can dictate how an organization runs from behind the scenes, explain the three leadership experts.

But when unwritten rules conflict with official ones, employees may begin to view the workplace as hypocritical and unfair, the authors warn.

How to tackle tough conversations in the office

According to a study published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior, employees who perceive their office as "more political" are less engaged and more likely to quit.

However, Kaiser, Chamorro-Premuzic, and Lusk argue that being successful often means engaging in office politics.

But be careful of what kind of office politics you engage in, they warn.

Bad politics, like backstabbing and rumor mongering, can lead you to privilege your interests at the expense of your colleagues or the organization, they argue.

Good politics, however, help you advance your interests without neglecting your colleagues' rights or the organization's mission, they explain.

They cite an article from Gerald Ferris that identifies the four components of political skill:

  1. Social astuteness: The ability to understand how other people see you;
  2. Interpersonal influence: The capacity to affect how and what other people think;
  3. Networking ability: The power to form mutually beneficial relationships with diverse groups of people; and
  4. Apparent sincerity: The ability to not only act honestly, but also seem honest to other people.

Practicing good office politics may help you get recognition for your contributions and influence what decisions get made, they note.

Engaging in well-meaning office politics is especially important for organizational leaders, write Kaiser, Chamorro-Premuzic, and Lusk. According to a study published in Human Performance, a leader's political aptitude may determine whether their directions and feedback seem bossy or dictatorial.

Well-intentioned office politics can advance your career and the organization's interests, all while maintaining your honor, write Kaiser, Chamorro-Premuzic, and Lusk.

Just say "No." It's how your most successful colleagues get ahead

But if the idea of office politics still makes you want to jump in the shower, remember that sitting out altogether may put you and the organization at a large at a disadvantage, they note.

At the end of the day, those decisions will be made. And if you don't practice political savvy to influence those decisions, they may not reflect your expertise and insight, the authors warn (Kaiser et al., Harvard Business Review, 9/18). 

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