Negative politics can poison the well. Highly political workplaces are very often toxic and dysfunctional.
I am sure we have all observed political maneuverings on the job like the bad behaviours associated with office politics include gossiping, flattering, or sucking up to the boss to gain favour, and of course backstabbing and other measures to jockey for power. Then there is taking credit for other people's work. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Some workplaces have all the characteristics of a Netflix political drama. Think ‘House of Cards’.
I work in career transitions; I see it in my work all the time. Part of my job is to attend notification meetings when employees are being let go from a company. To be clear, not everybody who's let go from a company is released for political reasons, but many are. I often hear things like, ‘things were fine until I got a new boss’, or ‘I knew my days were numbered - they were out to get rid of me.’ Sometimes it’s regime change, which can be poorly managed, and sometimes it’s internal conflict like jealousy and petty rivalries, jockeying for a promotion. Often, it’s organization wide, as if it were apart of the organization’s DNA.
While negative politics can’t be completely avoided, you can develop skills and strategies to manage the situation. The first and best strategy is to step out of the fray - distance yourself from the politics, observe behaviours, recognize patterns, and mindfully respond to situations as they unfold.
What is workplace politics?
Workplace politics is the process by which people jockey for position within a workplace. It happens in the context of an organizational power structure, where people benefit from being in a position of influence. It is also known as office politics or organizational politics. Workplace politics is played out in a multivariable system, making it dynamic and hard to predict. It is the behaviours of individuals and groups of individuals that express their ambition, struggle for power, their unique personal characteristics and their personal challenges in the context of work and their careers.
So how do we feel about workplace politics?
When I use the word ‘politics’ most of us think of negative connotations of politics, and no wonder just open-up a newspaper, or log onto social media. Gazing at our media landscape it’s impossible not to conjure up images of politicians being incompetent, and hyper partisan – often behaving in the most Machiavellian ways.
While ruthless ambition and underhanded deeds makes for great headlines, or suspenseful plot lines on a TV drama, the reality is negative workplace politics is hell. The day-to-day grind of working in political setting that would give the Game or Thrones a run for its money takes its toll on us. The cost of workplace politics can be the success of the organization and well being individuals within. It could even cost you your career. Toxic workplace politics decrease productivity, morale and loyalty within the organization. It is one of the leading causes of burnout and workers checking out.
Negative politics breeds pessimism and cynicism. Highly political workplaces are demoralizing. For most of us negative politics is crazy making. I don’t know about you, but when I come to work, I just want to get on with it, do my job. Negative politics in the workplace; the jockeying for power, ruthless competition, gossiping, backbiting, bullying, and psychological torture (mind games) played out are crazy making.
How do we recognize negative politics in the workplace? The answer is fairly simple, look for the drama. The negative politician thrives on drama, the kind of drama that makes others scratch their heads in confusion and even begin to wonder if they are going crazy. Some politicians use negative emotions to plant the seeds of confusion, doubt, fear and division, and once they have planted their seeds drama comes knocking. The opportunistic politician enters stage right.
What triggers negative political behaviour on the job?
The origins of negative politics are structural and behavioural. They are rooted in bureaucratic structures and individual players manipulating those structures for their advantage. Characteristics of hyper political and toxic workplaces include rigid bureaucratic environments, uncertainty and change, lack of vision, hyper competitive environments, and a lack of respect for one another.
Politics!? Can we ever escape it? The simple answer is no.
Ignore workplace politics at your peril. You don’t need to throw yourself in the middle of the unfolding drama at work, but don’t look away. The best advice I can give you regarding surviving workplace drama is bring awareness to your surrounding, watch behaviours and be judicious in your response to situations that take place.
While you will want to develop vigilance and be on the watch for backbiting, gossiping, and undermining the work of others you will also want to observe the features of good politics cooperation, problem solving, and the insight and influence others can bring to work. Learn to observe and recognize politics at work. You can be nonpartisan, but never apolitical.
Let’s talk about the good politician. They are the ones that work hard, focus on problem solving and working cooperatively to get work done. They aren’t the ones who get embroiled in drama ready for Netflix or Amazon Prime. They are the unsung heroes of the workplace, respected and solid contributors. Keep an eye out for them, they can teach you much.
Good politicians are keen observers, open to new information. They are active listeners, taking in new information. They are capable of expanding their point of view and influencing others. They are kept in the loop often with their finger on the pulse. They are good at reading other people and framing their preferred options as a win.
Good politicians doesn't need to be a star but can exercise powers of persuasion and influence to bring about positive change – they have clout. A good politician can inspire, promote unity, and organizational and personal growth. Sometimes they exercise soft power – their manner and way of being is respected. They model desirable behaviours in the workplace influencing others and very often set a tone for the organization.
What are political skills?
Someone who has good political skills is a keen observer, they watch for formal and informal channels of communication. They focus on building relationships, developing rapport, and nurturing connections. They are a good communicator, especially when it comes to active listening. Good politicians self aware and mindful of the role they play in the organization. They are able to build trust and understanding with others.
So, at this point you might be asking me how does this fit into the big picture – my career?
I’ll get to that.
There are three personal factors that are key to career success: cognitive skills, emotional intelligence and personality.
Cognitive skills can be defined as the core skills your brain uses to think, learn, remember, reason and pay attention. These skills are necessary to master complex activities including critical thinking and work skills necessary for career success.
Emotional intelligence is the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and with empathy.
Personality is as clusters of traits individuals possess that are expressed in behaviours. Having a wide variety of well-developed personality traits enable the individual a greater range of problem-solving abilities in complex environments.
Now, I want to introduce the idea that handling interpersonal relationships judiciously and with empathy is a meta skill. I see meta skills and a higher-level skill that keeps everything working and enables us to manage complex tasks, like managing relationships. Think of a meta skills as an orchestra conductor, conducting an orchestra.
A met skill can be applied to a wide variety of circumstances including ones you have never directly experienced before. A meta skills is used to solve new problems and in complex environments that require clusters of skills to solve. Two meta skills you'll need to succeed in 2020 and in the rest of your working life are the ability to find new solutions and the ability to persuade and influence others. Both of which I might add are political skills.
Now I am going to focus on this notion of handling relationships and all that it includes. Handling relationships well requires we use cognitive skills – particularly critical thinking, emotional intelligence and personality traits to interact with others successfully. Our ability to develop this meta skill of ‘handling relationships’ could determine whether we survive and thrive in the workplace.
Before we can handle relationships, we need to be able to read the situation and act in a manner that promotes our interests. This requires observing and recognizing patterns.
In my work I have heard many stories of politics in the workplace, from mundane to horrific. During my career I noticed one striking feature they all have – drama. Drama tells me that the workplace has some serious issues. Drama is the common thread we find in toxic workplaces. If your workplace is an amateur Shakespearean festival constantly rehearsing Macbeth, you’ve got problems.
I have been vicariously observing politic dramas in the workplace in my career for over twenty years, and even been in the middle of workplace dramas for much longer. A little disclosure I am Theatre School dropout, so I know drama.
Where there’s drama, there is usually a drama queen, or king, or non-binary drama ruler and sometimes a whole cast of supporting roles. Being on stage with a cast of characters in a workplace drama can be overwhelming, taxing and exhausting. If your workplace is highly political see if you can join the audience and observe the play. Step out of the fray if you can.
I’m going to share with you a framework to help you to observe politics at work.
Let’s use the theatre metaphor since we’ve been discussing drama to discuss a framework for observing politics at work. Imagine it’s a warm summer day and you have the most wonderful day planned. You’re going to see a live performance of your favourite play in the park and you take a hot air balloon to get there. While in the balloon you can see the contours of the structures below. Once at the stage your land and then take front row seats to watch the comedy and drama unfold.
As you the fly over the park you can see the landscape below: the structures, cultural capital, and who has clout in the workplace. While on our balloon ride our purpose is to the mapping out the contours of the landscape below. After we have done that, we are going to land the balloon and take in the show watching the cast of players perform on stage.
The first contours we see are the structures of the organization below – formal and informal.
The formal structures are organizational charts, mandates, and mission. These are processes, practices, and procedures that underpin the organization. And, of course the physical space, the brick and mortar of the company (or, the virtual space). The formal structures set the tone. They underpin how the organization views itself within an industry, sector, or marketplace. The formal structures influence the leadership style of the enterprise.
When surveying the landscape, particularly the formal structures we want to know where we fit into the organization. We need to ask ourselves the following questions: what is the structure of the organization? What does the organizational chart look like? What are the reporting structures? And where do we fit in?
When I think of the difference between formal and informal structures, I think of a vine creeping up into a lattice work in a garden. The lattice is the formal structure that gives shape and direction to the organization. The vine is the organic informal structure that grows around and fills in the lattice. The vine entangles itself on this structure, it blossoms out into an organic, unique culture – reflective of the unique individuals within that environment.
Next let’s discuss the term cultural capital.
Within any unique cultural we find cultural capital. Cultural capital is a term that was developed in the late 20th century by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. It is an accumulation of knowledge, behaviours, and skills that one can tap into to demonstrate one's cultural competency and thus demonstrate their social status or standing within society, or group. Simply put, demonstrating the right combination of knowledge and behaviours is money in the bank.
There are within the formal and informal structures of any organization embedded knowledge, behaviours and skills that demonstrate one’s competencies within that setting. Formal structures inform occupational competencies include the knowledge and skills, credentials etc. to do the work. Informal structures inform competencies and interests that might be shared outside of work like golfing or watching the Bachelor for example.
If you want to identify who has clout watch for those that demonstrate the accumulation of knowledge and behaviours valued in the workplace. Don’t look at the org chart. Pay more attention to relationships and interactions than the org chart.
What is clout? Clout is defined as influence or power, especially in politics or business. Synonyms include influence, power, pull, weight, sway, and leverage.
How do we identify clout?
People with clout are generally trusted. Someone who has clout is good at communicating with others, leading others through both formal and informal channels, understanding what others think and feel, and respond effectively. People who have clout are respected.
Next let's talk about the political players. Who are they?
Imagine, we’ve landed our balloon and now we are sitting in the front row as the curtain opens. We find six players on stage.
These are six common types of political players we find in the workplace; least wise I have created for the sake of this framework. They are the independent player, the party loyalist, the maverick, the lobbyist, the adviser, and the covert operator. Each has their own characteristics and agenda.
Let me introduce them.
The first players are the independents. They are independently minded, self-contained, strategic, risk adverse – will only take calculated risks. They built their political alliances to serve their interests. Independents are sometimes seen as lone wolves. Behaviours include perfectionism, resistant to change, and often guarding information, preferring silo work environments.
Their agenda is to protect their advantage, their subject matter expertise and stay relevant.
Now let me introduce the party loyalists. These players are fiercely loyal to the team. They are averse to contrary points of view. They enforce the party mandate; they are the political whip. They believe in taking it for the team. These players are steadfast, they move lock step with the leadership. They are often gregarious and extraverted and exercise persuasion (sometimes heavy handily) to get everyone on side. They seek harmonious relations so long as party loyalty comes first.
Their agenda is often to gain leadership or influence within the party. They are the loyal foot soldier.
The next the mavericks, sometimes called the wild cards. They can be unpredictable and even radical that's why we call them the wild card. They are bold in character and don’t shy away from change – sometime change for change sake. They like to upset the apple chart. They are always challenging the status quo. In fact, they may have an agenda to destroy the status quo and make room for something new.
Their agenda is it shake things up. They are very often provocateurs. If they are in leadership roles the best piece of advice, I can give you, is hang-on.
Next, we have the lobbyists. They can always be counted on to champion their projects, even if they don’t but always have the best ideas. They're not usually willing to hear dissenting opinions. The lobbyist is a smooth operator. They're charming, engaging, and persuasive. They very often get their way. They are tenacious like a dog with a bone. Don’t be surprised if they use manipulation to get their way. The lobbyist is always thinking about the end game, they are calculating their next move.
Be aware of the lobbyist agenda. They can be ruthless and self-serving. Carefully evaluate the merits of the issue when you when you ask for their support. Don’t let their charm or manipulation cloud your judgment.
The next type of political player is the covert operator. Probably one of the best images for the cover operator that comes to mind is, that of the spy. The covert operator likes to operate undetected, in stealth mode. They are always looking for intel. In some case they can operate as a double agent. They are good at collecting information and yet are secretive regarding themselves. They don’t share, they collect.
Their agenda is simple – collect intelligence. They are the type of player who has a dossier on everyone. The best piece of advice I can give you is don’t over share. The simple rule regarding surviving this type of player is keep them on a very strict need to know only basis – be cautious.
Finally, the last type of political player we're going to discuss is the adviser. The adviser is tight with the company's leadership and serves as their eyes and ears. They are influencers, they wield significant power and authority behind the scenes. It is important to tread carefully around the advisor. I strongly recommend you develop good rapport with them.
Their agenda is the protect the leadership. These players have tremendous clout, often way above their position in an organization.
Okay, so now the show has begun, and we are watching the players perform actions or behaviours take place on stage.
Now, I am going to use The Big 5 Personality traits to discuss traits and behaviours of the players on stage. The Big Five Personality Test measures the following traits openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neurosis (or negative emotions for our purposes).
The Big Five Personality Test has been used extensively in Occupational Psychology to study career and academic success. Our job when using this tool is to observe behaviours and to recognize patterns, not to evaluate our coworkers’ psychological health.
Let's start by our discussion of the Big Five by talking about openness. Persons who score high in this personality trait are open to new ideas, quick to understand things, and likely to get in abstract ideas or thought. They are ‘what if’, big picture thinkers. The behaviours you will want to watch for expressiveness, curiosity, a vivid imagination, and seeking new experiences and excitement.
Person to score low on this personality trait are not interested in new ideas, they are less imaginative – often pragmatic, and not interested in abstract ideas or thought. They tend to be task oriented, and operations focused.
Next let's talk about conscientiousness. Persons who score high in conscientiousness are well prepared, attentive to detail, and orderly. This trait is probably the one trait that has the greatest weight in terms of career success.
Person who score high in conscientiousness enjoy career success especially within administrative or production settings.
Persons who score low in conscientiousness are more flexible, more spontaneous, perceived as sloppy and less reliable by some. Someone with a low score in conscientiousness don’t necessarily suffer in terms of career success. In occupational like law and human services being more flexible and spontaneous is an asset.
The next personality trait we’re going to discuss is extraversion. Persons who score high on extraversion are the life of the party, quick to start a conversation, comfortable around others, and after thinkers (meaning they speak first and think afterwards). They present behaviours that engage others. They get bored easily and they are always ready to move on if the going get slow. Don’t trouble them with too much details, their eyes will glace over. Watch for outgoing and sociable behaviours. Extraverts tend to end up in career that require influencing others, that is where they enjoy the greatest career success.
People who score low on extraversion are not very talkative. They are especially quiet around strangers. They are before thinkers; they think before they speak. They prefer social interactions to be one-to-one. They are very often detailed oriented and don’t get bored easily ‘going granular’. Often called introverts, these individuals are drawn toward scientific and technical occupations.
The next personality trait to do we're going to discuss is agreeableness. People who score high in agreeableness are interested in other people. They like to take the time for others, they are empathetic and very often soft-hearted. Watch for behaviours that express concern and empathy for overs.
People who score low in agreeableness are, not interested in others and less likely to show empathy. Watch for distancing, and little of no signs of empathy. This can be a problem in work settings that require collaboration, and empathy for others.
The last personality trait we are going to discuss is negative emotions (or neurosis).
This is the trait that most negatively effects our career success. Negative emotions not well managed create tons of problems in the workplace. The dominate behaviours can be described as paranoid, dramatic and anxious.
Believe me these emotions not well managed are career killers. Remember earlier when we talked about the drama queen or king? This is them. They bring the drama to work.
Watch for paranoid behaviours like blaming others. Watch for dramatic behaviours like walking around wounded and needy, attention hogging, and calculating their next move. Watch for the anxious behaviors like worry and constant need for assurance.
A word of advice don’t get sucked into their drama.
If this description hits home for you, and you do experience these negative emotions and they are creating problems for your career success get help, develop better coping mechanisms, and work on building greater resilience.
The opposite of negative emotions is emotional effectiveness. Scoring high on emotional effectiveness is a career superpower. Emotional effectiveness is being able to manage negative emotions and responded to others judiciously and with empathy. People who score high on emotional effectiveness generally enjoy much career success. They can be counted on to manage relationships well and excel in human facing and leadership roles.
So now, the curtain closes on the play. We have watched the players perform and have taken stock of their behaviours, as we zoom out of the scene on our balloon ride back to the city, we can see the structures again and how they are filled out. We can see the players waving at us.
My goal today was to share a framework to help you to survive politics and thrive in the workplace. I have talked about the fly over and watching for the drama in the workplace. Hopefully I have shared some valuable insight you can use on the job. I am going to leave you with some questions to ponder.
What can you do to survive politics on the job? What are the formal and informal structures on your job? What do you need to pay attention too? What does political capital look like in your workplace? Do you have political capital? Who has clout? Do you have clout? How can you build clout? Who are the players? What are their behaviours? What behaviours do we need to watch for? Who can you trust? Who is the drama ruler? How do we stay out of the drama?