Office politics 'can be positive'

Oct 12 2004 by Nic Paton Print This Article

Employers need not fear office politics as something wholly destructive - and clever managers may even be able to turn it around to their advantage.

A study of HR managers and professionals by Roffey Park has found that, while just under a third pessimistically felt office politics could never be used constructively, more than half – 58 per cent – had experienced it being used for the better.

Indeed, 61 per cent of the 856 people polled admitted to having indulged in political behaviour, but that it had led to a positive outcome for their organisation.

According to Elaine Fear, associate director of ER Consultants, a business

consultancy specialising in organisational change, the key with office politics is not to assume political people are innately destructive.

Someone may appear simply to be empire building or trying to assert authority over someone else, but what are their underlying intentions – is it because they feel frustrated with the decision making structure as it stands?

Similarly, what skills they are using – can these be turned around to benefit the business?, she suggested.

Successful office politicians are often hugely engaged, will understand how the levers running the business and affecting its culture work, will have good networking skills and may have a high degree of emotional intelligence.

"When the use of power or office politics becomes destructive it is often because there is no common ground or shared goals," Fear told Management Issues.

But it is the actions and attitudes of senior managers that are critical in determining whether the political culture of an organisation is positive or negative, stressed report author Linda Holbeche.

"They set the political tone since they have the ability to reward or sanction behaviour in others lower down the hierarchy. If they are to be effective role models, they must take this responsibility seriously," she said.

Where political behaviour is used constructively, she argued, it can lead to better and more effective relationships, a greater understanding of individual agendas, more "win-win" situations and people acting in a more principled way.

The report, The Power of Constructive Politics, also suggested political behaviour can be used to unblock barriers to change, create greater "buy-in" on key projects, produce more organisational cohesion and speed up decision making.

The public sector commonly has more problems with office politics because it is too often bedevilled by bureaucracy, a lack of clear goals, a culture that penalises failure and is more likely to be subject to public scrutiny and criticism, the report argued.

In organisations with very hierarchical decision making structures – such as the civil service – people will commonly use office politics to block someone else’s effort and promote their own, agreed ER's Fear.

"In less hierarchical environments, you can use those skills or competencies to work with the grain of the organisation. It will be about promoting yourself and the organisation at the same time," she said.