Organizational Politics, oh my!

July 29, 2009

politicsI don’t know about you, but I hate “politics” at work.  I hate it because politics in an organization are all about someone protecting their own self-interests or their group’s interests, and not thinking about the big picture of what’s best for the company.  During seminars and speaking engagements I am often asked, “Why do organizational politics exist and what’s the best way to handle politics at work?” 

According to Kinicki & Kreitner, organizational politics are primarily triggered by uncertainty.  Five common sources of uncertainty in organizations include (2008, p. 336):

  1. Unclear objectives
  2. Vague performance measures
  3. Ill-defined decision processes
  4. Strong individual or group competition
  5. Any type of change

As a manager or employee, the key to avoiding organizational politics is to try and stop it before it even starts.  Make sure department or project objectives are very clearly defined and understood.  Make sure you’ve determined metrics on how to measure performance and that everyone understands how the measurements will work and when and to whom the metric performance will be reported.  Use a clearly defined and documented decision-making process so there are no surprises to anyone and so key stakeholders feel they are part of the decision-making process.  Be careful to monitor competition among individuals and groups – too much or too little competition can be detrimental.  Learn all you can about managing change to ensure all change situations are well-thought out and all key stakeholders are prepared and comfortable with any upcoming changes.

Throughout my career I’ve tended to see organizational politics occur the most with managers or employees who are worried about their jobs, worried about losing their teams, or worried about not getting or losing a key project – so they begin “politicking” and putting their own self-interests ahead of what is best for the overall company.  These are also the people I see with the lowest levels of self-confidence.

Kinicki & Kreitner also note that “Employees tend to resort to political games when they are unsure about what it takes to get ahead” (2008, p. 336).  They state that in a survey conducted in New York, younger employees are more likely to resort to politics than older employees.  I too have seen this in my career.  I believe as we become older and more experienced we become more sure of ourselves and more confident in our skills and abilities so there is less of a need to resort to political games to get ahead – more mature employees use their knowledge, skills, abilities and respect earned over many years to help propel their career forward, not politics.

Remember, the best way to avoid organizational politics is to proactively do everything you can to ensure it doesn’t occur in the first place.  Since organizational uncertainty is the main trigger of organizational politics, work to ensure a transparent and clearly defined work environment that is supported by honesty, integrity, and respect.

~ Lisa Quast

Source:  Kinicki, A. & Kreitner, R. (2008). Organizational Behavior: key concepts, skills & best practices.  Boston: McGraw-Hill Irwin.

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