Navigating Organizational Politics for Mid-Level Managers

Although office politics are at the heart of every organizational culture, you can wade through the chaos to emerge a stronger, better person

After serving for five years as a Retail Center Agent at a large mobile telephone operator in Kenya, one worker felt stifled and, “without a plan,” she decided to quit. The bureaucracy at the company, she explains, was unbearable, especially for workers who wanted to grow. Her decision to leave was informed by the assessment that she had no chance of penetrating the politics and overall culture at the company to move ahead.

Another employee, James, also shares his experiences of organizational politics: “I was employed as a graphics designer at a book publishing house in Nairobi. “Within three years,” he relates, “I got noticed and was promoted to the position of Head Graphics Designer. In this position, he would be supervising four junior designers and an illustrator. “There were three other designers at my level, based in different departments.”

After four months of heading his department, James noticed that he would approve images for publication, but then, when the final proofs of the book got out, the pictures on some pages would be different from the ones he had authorized. What bothered him was that the changes happened behind his back. Every time he tried to inquire about the alterations, his manager accused him of being “arrogant.”

“It was not until I tendered my resignation that the head of HR summoned me,” says James. “I explained my situation, and my manager was summoned. Unable to account for the confusion, the manager was moved to a different department.”

Many questions have been asked regarding organizational politics. For instance, why do corporate politics emerge? Why is it that employees nearly always dislike their immediate office manager, yet each of them seeks to become a manager?

Office politics emerge as a means of resolving the dilemma of how to apportion scarce organizational positions and resources. For instance, in 1969, Canadian educator Laurence J. Peter formulated what came to be known as the Peter Principle. The Peter Principle stipulates that in an organizational hierarchy, each employee rises to their level of incompetence. In other words, everyone gets promoted until they reach such an advanced point that they can no longer perform. At least, in theory, that is how things should go.

It was because employees everywhere were unconvinced as to the accuracy of the Peter Principle that competing explanatory models emerged. Among these is a theory proposed by author Scott Adams in his hilarious book The Dilbert Principle (1996). Adams reasoned that his principle was effectively replacing the Peter Principle. He described it thus, "the basic concept of the Dilbert Principle is that the most ineffective workers are systematically moved to the place where they can do the least damage- management."

Whether you believe in the Peter Principle or the Dilbert Principle, politics appear to have emerged as a response to undeniable organizational chaos. The idea is that the formula for sharing the corporate pie is never fair. As such,  people had to devise other, behind-the-scenes (and often underhanded) strategies of championing their perceived rights as workers. Today, hardly anyone denies that politics is an integral part of any organizational culture. But corporate politics can be both useful and dysfunctional.

To delve into politics or not?

The Journal of Management cites a study that demonstrated that political skill is positively correlated with interpersonal power and performance in organizations. The moral of the study is clear: ignore organizational politics at your peril! As you get into politics, remember that politics can make or break your career. It, therefore, helps if, as an employee, you know exactly why you are joining a given political bandwagon.

You might be a manager looking to marshal political pressure to push employees into higher productivity. Bear in mind that workers, too, form political coalitions to counter any perceived persecution by the political maneuverings of their superiors.

How to Navigate Organizational Politics

Where organizational politics is concerned, it can be a swim-or-sink matter. How then do you enter the political realm without drowning? The following rules of thumb will act as a general guide. To flourish, you must adapt them to your unique political situation.

1.Understand the political culture of your organization

Every organization has a unique set of ingrained behaviors and norms that define its overall political culture. Some political cultures are systematic and orderly. Others are chaotic and disorienting, while others straddle the orderly and the chaotic. Where chaotic politics is concerned, American actor-comedian Groucho Marx was correct in his assessment. Politics, he said, “is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, misdiagnosing it and applying the wrong remedies.”

Of course, politics can also be a healthy, human process of settling disputes on how to divide the pie among a multitude of jostling employees. Whatever the case may be, it is your responsibility to understand and exploit the politics of your organization to meet your unique needs as an employee.

Some political cultures are systematic and orderly. Others are chaotic and disorienting.

2. Be true to your values and beliefs

The trouble with politics is that it is usually noisy. And the noise has a way of distracting those among us whose values and beliefs are weak. The tale is told of a machinist at a factory. He liked the work of physically handling, operating, oiling, and repairing the factory machines. One day, the organizational rumor mill had it that a more senior position was opening up at the factory. But the factory would only consider employees who had served at the facility for more than ten years, which the machinist had.

Pushed endlessly by his peers, the man applied. He got the job! A few months into the new posting, which entailed more supervisory than hands-on mechanical work, he began to experience burnout. He tried to return to his old job, but it had already been filled. The moral of the story: Just because the political machinery endorses something does not mean it is ideal for you.

3. Strive to reach the real decision-makers

Much of what is termed as politicking entails bickering among persons who lack real decision-making power, and who have no strategy for channeling their yearnings to the right people. In other words, politicking is only empty chatter by individuals who are going nowhere.

To achieve your goals at your organization, target your political strategy at persons who matter and stay focused. You are looking for something that is suited to your unique values and goals—not some popular prescription that you will find dull and tedious in a matter of weeks. As Warren Buffet said, “Don’t ask the barber if you need a haircut.”

4. Seek to add value along the political supply chain

Former President of Kenya, the late Daniel Moi, is famous for having said, “Siasa mbaya, maisha mbaya” (bad politics translates to a bad life”). While politics was devised as an attempt to develop unusual ways of solving an impossible problem (i.e., apportioning scarce resources among a crowd), only rarely is politics used to that end.

The rest of the time, politics serves to fill spaces and to keep idlers engaged. As a proactive member of your organization, you can help shape the politics of your organization in more meaningful directions. Rather than spreading pointless rumors, how about initiating political dialogues that further a cause, solve a problem, and add value? If you get into the habit of doing this, chances are you will be discovered and rewarded for it.

5. Respect others as you assert your individuality

Office politics can be chaotic. But they don’t have to turn you into a psychic vampire, a person who feeds off the “life force” of other people, draining them. In the movie, The Shawshank Redemption (1994), starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, warden Norton is the cruel boss at Shawshank State Penitentiary. Over time, he exploits his power and commits many atrocities against the inmates. Does he end well? Hardly.

Even in a milieu of hot politicking, one can show respect. Remember: “People pay for what they do, and still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it simply: by the lives they lead” ( Edith Wharton).

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