Organizational politics: Good? Bad? Here’s what you need to know
The term ‘organizational politics’ probably conjures up images of cliques and office gossip. But there’s much more to it than that.
Organization politics refers to the personal agenda of an individual within a company. As you’ve probably guessed, it can spell trouble. When dysfunctional politics spiral out of control, it can be enough to sink an organization. It’s wise to stay mindful of the disruptive effects, but it’s equally important to remember it’s not all bad.
In fact, as a company grows, it may only continue to survive due to the political maneuvering of those involved.
In this article, we’ll explore different types of organizational politics and explain how they work, why they exist, and the effect they have on a company when misused.
Understanding these is essential if you’re a manager or ever manage a project — so if that’s you, read on!
What are the six different types of organizational politics?
To begin, let’s define organizational politics.
There are several varying definitions. But, the one that seems to make the most sense is ‘the way individuals influence others within organizations.’
Although this definition sounds simple enough, it takes a specific skill set to know how and when to use these skills effectively.
Let’s break down organizational politics into six different subsections: self-promotion, office politics, factionalism, gatekeeping, territorialism, and bossism.
Self-promotion happens when an individual works to further their own career, regardless of who they step on in the process. This person will often kill others’ ideas so that they can take credit for them themselves. They are willing to put other people down to raise themselves up.
2. Office politics
Office politics is when one person or group tries to influence another through persuasion, influence, manipulation, pressure, etc. They do this for their own gain and are willing to use whatever means necessary. This can be positive if it helps get more people on board with the organization’s project/idea/direction, but detrimental if it results in infighting because everyone was trying to win at someone else’s expense.
Factionalism is when groups within an organization become split based on two distinguishing characteristics: common tasks and common interests. When factionalization happens within a firm, each smaller faction will form any alliances that they believe to be beneficial to them or their goals. This can be highly detrimental for the company because the factions will use any means necessary to win. Often, this ends with negative results (for example, slander). But, it can also be a good thing. In large, bureaucratic companies, breaking off into smaller groups can help promote agility and innovation.
Gatekeeping is when an individual or group in power intentionally prevents other ideas/concepts/people from entering a given situation, whether work-related or personal. They do this to keep their position of power and prevent others from challenging them in any way.
The adverse effects of this behavior are rampant, including stifling innovation, preventing talented people from earning their place in an organization, and allowing bad decisions to continue solely due to the power of the gatekeeper(s). Conversely, you can use it to your advantage. If you’re able to identify gatekeepers and spot gaps, you can potentially increase your own influence.
Territorialism is when people become extremely attached to a certain role and do not allow others to fill it. This is seen in many forms — a professor who insists on teaching the same course year after year, a manager who refuses to give up control over a project. You get the idea.
Bossism favors those you work under over those who report directly to you (or “outranking,” as it’s formally called). The negative effects of this behavior include alienating employees and leading to power struggles within an organization.
What causes organizational politics?
Nine times out of 10, employees use organizational politics as a tool to gain power, popularity, or tarnish someone’s reputation. It’s generally a negative thing — but this isn’t always true.
Sometimes, individuals need to manage relationships to achieve results — something that’s especially important during an organization’s transitional phase. As long as everyone’s pulling in the right direction, it can be a positive thing.
Good and bad — here are some of the reasons organizational politics exist:
A lack of clarity
An organization is a complex entity with interconnecting relationships between departments, teams, and individuals.
It can be difficult to know where you stand at all times or exactly what’s going on. In this sense, organizational politics can exist as a lack of communication. There is a need for someone to ensure the right message gets out there. Do I have power? Am I being heard? We’re all human, and most of us want to know whether we have influence within an organization and if our opinion actually matters.
In some cases, it takes a few jabs or barbs to figure this one out. But, keep in mind that doing so will often lead to conflict. Taking mental notes about who supports which projects and initiatives can be useful. So can paying attention to how well you relate with your peers.
This common-sense approach might sound simple enough — but it’s easy for things to get complicated in a group environment. The more dense an office space, the greater the chance that someone might accidentally butt heads with another worker. This even happens sometimes without even realizing it until after the fact.
Conflict can happen when people don’t have access to information, which breeds frustration and anger. On the flip side, conflict can also arise when too much information makes its way into a workplace setting. This is where organizations often run into trouble.
If one worker perceives another as being a favorite or better at their job, it can easily lead to resentment.
This is especially true when it appears their superior doesn’t attempt to conceal the fact that they like them better. Or, they attempt to play favorites themselves. This can have a toxic effect on workplace morale and should never happen in an office where employees need to perform well together for the company’s greater good.
When there is a new appointment at higher levels, workers often try and get ahead of each other by showing off their best skills or badmouthing others. It can make them feel competitive, and this often has a negative effect on the actual business at hand.
Few promotion opportunities
When there are only a few places at the top and many people vying for them, it can be difficult to get ahead. Because of this, workers often bring the level of their work down to make themselves less noticeable. This may lead to more promotions for those who are forward-thinking and take advantage of every opportunity given to them.
Sometimes workers look for shortcuts to the top without putting in the work. Organizational politics are a way to grab the limelight or remove people who are challenging their authority.
Unknown or no career path
If advancement comes for arbitrary reasons, workers may be unsure of what they need to do to gain recognition and move up the ladder. This can lead to anxiety that is unproductive for both individual workers and the company as a whole.
When there is no competition in the workplace, business will often become stagnant, and employees will feel as if they don’t need to work as hard for rewards. This usually leads to poor quality work and less innovation within the company.
This lack of motivation can affect productivity on all levels; if one worker is unmotivated, it’s likely their coworkers are too — resulting in endless hours wasted with little progression towards a goal or standard of excellence.
What are the effects of organizational politics?
The negative effects of organizational politics include tension, dissatisfaction, and low morale — while the positive effects include improved employee performance and motivation. The reality is that it can go either way, depending on how an organization uses this tactic. Here are some common negative side-effects:
- An increase in stress: Employees’ high stress level comes from the constant fear of the unknown and/or the threat of losing their job.
- Decrease in productivity: People caught up in organizational politics pay less attention to their work.
- Low levels of concentration: Workers who are preoccupied with their personal agendas are less likely to do their best work.
- Cynicism: This can lead to low morale, lower productivity, and dissatisfaction.
- High employee turnover: The number of people who leave the company due to organizational politics may result in a lack of qualified employees or loss of knowledge if good workers quit.
- Demotivated employees: Seeing undeserving employees succeeding or getting dragged into toxic work practices leaves people demotivated.
- Miscommunication: Manipulation thrives in organizational politics — and this means miscommunication reigns: managers are told edited versions of events, and employees aren’t kept in the loop.
- Decreased productivity: As a result of all the negativity, overall performance will decline.
- Resentment: Employees will not be happy and will resent their coworkers, managers and even the company itself.
How to reduce and manage organizational politics
Firstly, it is important to realize that some degree of organizational politics is unavoidable, so set realistic expectations with employees and learn to navigate them wisely.
It’s also critical for managers themselves to be aware of what they’re doing while managing. They should focus on the technical aspects of their jobs — such as executing tasks on time — and try to maintain positive working relationships with colleagues, including collaborating effectively, communicating respectfully, and generally being personable. This will help foster trust among colleagues, which in turn will reduce the negative effects of organizational politics.
If there is a lack of harmony, try changing your approach or taking a break from working together by attending meetings outside your department or arranging team lunches where you can get along better. Be proactive about this: don’t wait for your colleague’s attitude to change. Instead, try finding ways to interact with them positively.
Focusing on your organization’s core values can also be a useful guiding light when it comes to decision-making. By keeping the end goal in mind, you are better able to assign work.
The most important thing is for employees to know they’re valued, noticed, and that they have opportunities. As a manager, brush up on your people skills, make sure you delegate work based on efficiency and experience, help your team work effectively with collaboration tools — and reward good work accordingly.
Power comes in all forms in the workplace — from formal authority, like job titles — to little ‘perks’ that employees can use to their advantage, such as access to information about the company. Other forms of power include expertise, access to resources, personal influence, and informal networks.
Get to understand the power dynamics in your organization and learn how to navigate them to your advantage in a positive way. Understanding the political terrain can help you thrive — and managers who use what they know to support the organizational goals and their team will find it much, much easier to succeed.