Office politics exist in virtually all organizations. 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 aspects of the activities commonly referred to as office politics. For example, office politics may simply be part of networking and strengthening stakeholder relationships.
The truth is that if you want to succeed in a business environment, then it’s a good idea to develop some political know-how. Developing office politics skills can help prevent someone from taking advantage of you and also help you advance your career. 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 to at least be aware of the politics in your 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, they often seek to get the approval of others, usually 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 revolve around making analyses, 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 may 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 typically 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 with the bank or look elsewhere for promotion.
Senior bankers (VPs and MDs) build and maintain business relationships with current and new clients. They continuously source new deals and have deep expertise in their industry landscape. Not everyone is good at doing this, as it requires, among other things, exceptional interpersonal skills.
Limited Recognition, Rewards, and Opportunity
It takes several years to climb up the investment banking hierarchy. The chances of an analyst making it to MD level someday are 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 at most major investment banks.
Because of the limited availability of investment banking jobs, competition emerges. This is why it’s important to learn the politics of your organization. There’s a possibility that some of your co-workers may have strategies to gain an unfair advantage over you, even if your skills on the job are 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 you have to work hard. Even on the weekends, you may be expected to work long hours. With a major investment bank, the hours spent on a weekly basis are somewhere between 80-110 hours.
You may feel resentment or even jealousy towards the person who’s successfully politicking to achieve what they want and move ahead in the organization. But a better response is to learn to play the office politics game well yourself.
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. Forming friendships and alliances with your colleagues is one way to protect against negative influences in the office. 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 your work. Regularly update your superiors and co-workers about your progress and work output. This can protect you from anyone who challenges your contribution to the company or questions your skills. It protects your reputation because you can easily prove your level of productivity if it’s ever questioned.
Don’t retaliate in the same way
When there’s a co-worker who tries to make us look bad, we may harbor animosity toward that person and think about trying to retaliate. That’s a perfectly natural reaction, but it’s important to be careful to avoid losing your temper and your professionalism. Rather than taking revenge, the best thing you can do is take action to try to prevent the person from acting that way in the future. Consider confronting them privately and simply asking them why they acted in such a manner. You may be able to not only make peace with the individual but gain a new friend and ally.
We must be aware of the destructive aspects of office politics in order to minimize their negative effects. We must learn how to navigate our way through the particular political landscape of the organization we work for.
Being good at office politics in the workplace includes knowing 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, and that (2) we devise a strategy of how to successfully navigate the political waters wherever we work.
Thank you for reading CFI’s guide to office politics. To learn more and help advance your career, check out the following free CFI resources: