There is a very interesting article I recently rediscovered[i] that reminded me of why “office politics” exists: it comes down to Powerlessness.
How are people powerless?
In organizations, people have different goals. Some goals relate to the organization as a whole, but perhaps more directly meaningful are departmental goals, project team goals and personal goals. Often these goals are not aligned and can be in direct conflict.
When group decisions have to be made, it’s the goals of the most powerful that prevail. Everyone else feels powerless.
Dealing with powerlessness
One way to deal with powerlessness is to try and change the power structure using tactics common in the legislative process – thus the label “politics.” Here are some common tactics:
- Forming coalitions – People temporarily combine their power to achieve a common goal and become a more powerful force than their opponents.
- Lobbying – People with little or no say in the decision seek to influence people who do have input to a decision.
- Outside experts – An objective and knowledgeable outsider can add credence to the lobbying efforts of the underdog.
- Manipulation of information – Presenting or recasting data in a way that is favorable to the underdog’s goals can influence decisions – sometimes even deliberate disinformation.
- Controlling agendas – Directing which issues are decided and in what order can influence the ultimate outcome.
These tactics are usually apparent to everyone involved and can be very effective, but they do take time, effort and involve conflict.
Dealing with politics
If politics arise from a feeling of powerlessness, one way to prevent or lessen politics is to deal with the underlying powerlessness. Aligning goals across the organization and at all levels will help reduce the conflict in agendas and thus the resulting power-based decisions.
Another approach is to take steps that enable people to be heard and feel that their interests receive appropriate consideration.
[i] Eisenhardt, Kathleen M., and Mark J. Zbaracki. “Strategic decision making.” Strategic Management Journal 13, no. S2 (1992): 17-37.