As a former public servant, I was once told that, in order to progress, I had to be a master in the art of politics. I’d heard people use the term ‘office politics’ before, but I didn’t really know what it meant, nor had I ever been told that it was critical to my success. So obviously my first question was: “What do you mean?”
I was told – and I’m definitely paraphrasing here and removing the expletives – that it’s a skill of influencing people in order to gain a change that you’re looking for. I remember a meeting in my first week where I was told how to “play senior managers off against each other”; I took notes and wondered what I’d walked into.
Not long into the job, I found out that I was going head-to-head with other people who were telling a slightly different version of a story I was also telling in order to get what they needed from a situation and to make my approach appear less attractive.
It wasn’t that they were lying (well, not always), it’s just that they were better at subjective narrative than I was. It was like the Rashomon Effect, but for real, where people’s careers and often the ethics of the organisation was at risk.
This is not unique to government, indeed an element of politics exists in every kind of organisation regardless of country or sector, and it’s having the same mental health impact everywhere.
Stress, anxiety, harassment, bullying can all result from workplaces that tolerate politics. 65% of respondents of one survey of 3,000 staff said that working from home would be a way for them to get away from office politics and make them more productive as a result.
There will be some people who’ll say that office politics is unavoidable. They’ll use words like ‘rat-race’ and phrases like, ‘If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,’ as a natural concept to happen in any culture. Those people are wrong.
These are the people who have mastered the art of it and are likely to be found out when the culture is honest, ethical and holds its people to account for the things that are said, both inside and outside the office.
Office politics creates divisions and drags down emotionally intelligent people. It leads to cultures overstating the value or importance of something in order to get it approved, leading to disappointment and having a negative impact on engagement, morale and mental health when it doesn’t achieve results.
When evolving a culture to become vibrant, you need to coach and mentor those who seek to use power, influence and spin to get what they need and, if that doesn’t work, get rid of them altogether. Their values definitely won’t align with those of the culture.
People should still be encouraged to undertake internal networking and relationship building with those people from whom they can learn, but in a highly emotionally intelligent way that isn’t looking to scratch someone’s back or hoping to gain something in return.
The goal is to build strong bonds with others such that respectful discussion can take place and ensure that decisions are made in the best interests of the organisation, not for personal gain.
Those organisations that make excuses for office politics will eventually lose the very people that they need to combat it. They’ll vote with their feet and find somewhere that values honesty and integrity instead.
Colin D Ellis is an award-winning international speaker, culture change facilitator, and author of two best-selling books.
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