Office Politics: People aren’t creatures of logic; they’re creatures of emotion

Let's abandon professionalism

That’s a Dale Carnegie quote right there. I had heard it before somewhere — one of those moments you can’t exactly place — and I just saw it again in this article. That article talks about the underlying psychology of office politics, which is a pretty interesting topic (er, at least to me). It borrows heavily from this guy:

… because it seems the author might work for a company founded by that guy, also known as Robert Hogan.

Hogan broke down the essence of office politics into three “core” things people, as social/emotional animals, need from work:

  • The need to get along
  • The need to get ahead
  • The need to find meaning

As you can probably assume, those three are all at cross-purposes, especially No. 1 and No. 2. I’d argue “find meaning” is at cross-purposes with everything; a lot of people directly connect their self-worth back to their job, but companies don’t necessarily do a good job of “defining purpose.” (Companies often don’t think they have to do a good job at that, honestly.)

Here’s another point from the article; this often comes up in my own life (and probably yours too):

  • Most companies tend to promote people who are politically-savvy, because — well, if we’re being honest, guys at the top want to spend more time with people like themselves.
  • In this way, politics and/or playing politics is crucial for advancement and/or survival.
  • Thus, how can politics ever really die?

The short answer is that it can’t, especially because, well, we’re emotional and social beings. Anytime you put a group of people together, whether it’s 5 or 500, there will be some issues on what we want to do, why we’re doing it, and how we should get there. Money is a great equalizer for a lot of people, sure — as in, “Well, we want to make money.” But there are a lot of twists and turns on the path to that, even if you’re Apple or Exxon.

Here’s what HBR recommends about managing politics, FYI:

Conversely, in less toxic companies, leaders manage the tensions within groups to enhance team performance and, in turn, organizational effectiveness. To do this, the best managers recognize the psychological underpinnings of office politics and do two things in response: they manage the way they themselves behave, and they are careful about how they motivate others. People who are perceived as apolitical display high levels of congruence between what they say and what they do, and they are also good at rewarding others for what they were required to do, while holding them accountable for what they fail to deliver.

This is all well and good, but it’s very fraught: by some measure, 95 percent of managers don’t understand motivation. Most managers also confuse “accountability” (from the last sentence) with “yelling at/scaring someone,” and that’s also not accurate.

Politics will never fully go away, but the main thing you can do is consider how you promote people to management roles. It often comes from politics, which makes the politics self-sustaining (even necessary), as referenced above. Rather, consider an IC track and a management track — and allow people to make the same money on each track. That way, if you’re a horrible people person but the top dogs love you, you can keep making money and the company doesn’t need to put anyone underneath you. Once someone works for you, if you’re a terrible people person, they will hate their job. They’ll probably leave.

Sad fact is that a lot of people only become managers for (a) more money or (b) “formal power,” which they assume leads to respect. They’re not doing it to “become leaders.” They’re chasing the bottom line. So if you gave them a way to chase the bottom line without having to be managers, well, that benefits the whole company.

The second thing is easier, but will never happen: teach managers that their job isn’t about hitting deliverables anymore. That’s a rank-and-file description. As a manager, you are more of a coach than someone who needs to always worry about deliverables. Sad thing is, no one gets that. Deliverables are everything to most people.

How would you reduce office politics? Leave ’em.


Ted Bauer

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