What are Office Politics?
Office politics exist in almost any organization. They are the activities performed by individuals to improve their status and advance their personal agenda – sometimes at the expense of others. These self-serving actions are informal or unofficial and could be the reason why politics in the workplace comes with a negative connotation. However, there are good office politics as well, more commonly identified as networking and strengthening stakeholder relationships.
The truth is that we must develop political know-how. We often don’t like to talk about them, but in reality, office politics do exist. Developing office politics skills can help prevent anybody from taking advantage of us. If we fail to develop these skills, we may get left behind in terms of career advancement. The suggestion here is not to become a highly political person, but just to be aware of the politics in our organization.
What Causes Office Politics?
The motives for a person to engage in office politics are things such as the following: to sell their ideas, achieve a targeted objective, influence the organization, or increase their power. To reach these goals, politically-motivated individuals will form alliances, bargain, and negotiate to get what they want for themselves and/or for their group. Furthermore, these individuals frequently lobby their bosses before the bosses make a promotion. Also, they may bypass the chain of command to get approvals for certain decisions or projects.
People or groups within an organization have different interests. And these interests are not always aligned with the interests of others within the organization. Therefore, in order to be successful, some individuals engage in office politics.
Office Politics and Competition
If there are scarce resources in an organization, this breeds competition, and that often leads to the practice of office politics. For instance, because of limited positions within a firm such as an investment bank, individuals look for various ways to get promoted. When a person wants to control a project and make a difficult decision, they will want to get the approval of others, usually from their senior co-workers.
Virtually all organizations have a pyramid shaped hierarchy. This means there are fewer positions to be filled as one climbs up the ranks. Not everyone gets the promotion they’re after, as only a handful of executive positions are available.
Example of Office Politics: Hierarchy in Investment Banking
In investment banking, for example, you start your career as an analyst. This is when you spend most of your time learning the ropes. Your main tasks will revolve around making analysis, creating presentation materials, and even doing mundane, administrative tasks. If you’re considered a top performing analyst, you may receive an offer to stay for more years.
After two or three years, you’ll, hopefully, be promoted to the associate level. If you did really well as an analyst, some banks may offer you a direct promotion. However, other banks will require you to get your MBA first before going to work as an associate. The work is similar for associates and analysts, with the former having added responsibilities of managing the analysts’ work and acting as a liaison between junior and senior bankers.
VPs and MDs
Reaching the vice-president role requires about three and a half more years of investment banking experience as an associate. But not everybody can become a VP in the same bank. At this point, you have to assess your situation in regard to whether it’s a good idea to stay in the bank or look elsewhere for a promotion.
Senior bankers (VPs and MDs) build and maintain business relationships with current or new clients. They continuously source new deals and have deep expertise in their industry landscape. Not everyone is good at doing this, as you need to have exceptional interpersonal skills.
Limited Recognition, Rewards, and Opportunity
As we can see, it takes years to climb up the investment banking hierarchy. The chances of an analyst making it to MD level someday is small, considering there are many more analysts than MDs working at any major bank. The higher the role you’re trying to reach, the fiercer competition becomes. On average, it takes about 16+ years to progress from being an analyst to becoming a managing director in most major investment banks.
Because of the limited availability of investment banking jobs, competition emerges. This is why we must know the politics in our organization. There’s a possibility that some of our co-workers will have strategies to gain an unfair advantage over us, even if our skills on the job superior to theirs.
The culture in most investment banks, Big Four accounting firms, and major consulting firms is intense. They have a reputation for their cutthroat meritocracy. It definitely attracts the best and brightest business students from top universities, and frankly, everyone is replaceable, so we have to work hard. Even on the weekends, we are expected to work long hours. For a major investment bank, the hours spent on a weekly basis are somewhere between 80-110 hours.
We may feel resentment or even jealousy towards the person who’s politicking to achieve what they want. The reason for this is that not everyone engages in office politics with equal skill.
Changing Bad Office Politics
Here are some things we can do when experiencing bad office politics in the workplace:
- Make many friends
To change bad politics in the office, we need to get involved. A very common thing that can happen is a co-worker using their power to intimidate and oppress others. One thing we can do is to make friends with our colleagues and share anything that we may find wrong in the office. It’s a good idea to point out negative behavior that affects the performance of others. Forming a group alliance against a person engaged in negative politicking can isolate that person, contain their behavior, and expose them for what they do.
- Keep a record of your work
If we find someone improperly taking credit for our work, we shouldn’t just directly expose that person at the office. Instead, the most professional thing to do is to thoroughly document our work. We should regularly update our bosses’ superiors and co-workers about our progress and work output. This protects us from anybody who challenges our contribution to the company or questions our skills. More importantly, it protects our reputation, because we can easily prove our level of productivity to anyone.
- Don’t retaliate in the same way
When there’s a co-worker who tries to make us look bad, we may harbor animosity towards that person and even try to retaliate. But we must be careful of losing our temper and professionalism. Trying to do something can also backfire. We won’t be able to change the person’s behavior this way. What we can do is to talk privately with that person and ask them why they acted in that manner. This is a far better approach because it will make that person reflect on their negative actions.
So, when we start our finance work in a company, let’s determine whether or not it’s overly driven by office politics. We must be aware of the destructive aspects of office politics in order for us to minimize their negative effects. We must learn how to navigate our way to prevent ourselves from experiencing lower job satisfaction, making less commitment to the organization, suffering from job anxiety, and performing worse on the job.
Being good at office politics in the workplace is knowing who the right people to speak to, handling public put-downs well, making your work relevant, increasing your visibility, and moving projects along. We need to make sure that (1) we understand the politics in our organization, (2) we devise a strategy of how to successfully navigate them, and (3) we constantly check in with ourselves.
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