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Workplace politics and the self-interest loop

Workplace politics

Workplace politics are everywhere. We’ve all hopefully had a few good jobs and great bosses — but we’ve all worked in places that Wharton (UPenn) would equate to “chimp rape” too. There are major anthropological reasons for this, but we often ignore those. “No time, rushing to my 12:15!” Rather, we let workplace politics boil up and overwhelm us. At that point, the only option is “excessive anger all day” and/or “leaving this specific job.”

Now look, a quick word on workplace politics in general. They arrive because the real goal of work (besides “making money for those invested in you”) is (a) to seem relevant to others and (b) to not seem incompetent. At this intersection, most people are concerned with what elements of work they can “control” or “own,” as opposed to, well, doing quality work. Many middle managers are like this. The end game doesn’t matter. It’s whether they “controlled” the process. Now add in one more factor to this workplace politics pie: work is still made up of humans (for now). That makes it a fairly emotional place. But, we try (usually fail) to make it a logical place by choking everything in process. Humans have legitimate reactions to things. If your boss makes you cry, that’s legit. Someone tells you that you did something wrong, that’s emotional. No HR process is going to swoop in and “save the day” there. You’re fooling yourself if you think that.

But we’ve got another problem with workplace politics to consider: the role of anger and self-interest.

Workplace politics and anger

Work can make people angry. It’s probably made you angry a few times. A lot of work, in reality, is about managing this negativity and anger. We can dress this up in meetings and conference calls as much as we want. But when David from Operations takes a crap down your throat in one of those meetings, you are angry. And now we have repercussions.

Here’s new research posted at UPenn about emotions, anger, and deception. This is important stuff right now. Deception is everywhere. One of the biggest themes of 2016 globally? People lying. We need to understand “deception” a little better; here’s a bit of research out of Stanford on that.

At this point, we’ve established that:

  • Workplace politics exist and ain’t going anywhere
  • Workplace politics can make people angry

And now … this.

What happens when people get angry at work?

From this new research:

We often feel angry in the workplace. We often feel angry when we’re in a conflict with somebody else. And our work is the first to demonstrate that when we feel anger, it could actually lead us to engage in underhanded and more self-interested behavior in ways that we might not normally condone. And certainly as an organization, we should be highly aware of.

So, let’s add a few tiers here:

  • Workplace politics cause anger.
  • Anger can cause more self-interested behavior. 

Now we’ve got an issue on our hands.

Are workplace politics making offices more self-interested?

Logically, I’d say yes. Most workplace anger comes from conflict, and most work conflict is one person claiming another person didn’t do something right. That threatens the second person. What do people do when they’re threatened? If you’re emotionally adjusted, you react calmly and agree to do it better and get some context. 97 percent of people aren’t emotionally adjusted (I made that number up), so most people snarl, rationalize, attack the attacker, etc. It’s a fun little cycle. This is a dynamic element of workplace politics.




 

So, yes, in my examples — that I’ve seen first-hand — workplace politics drives conflict, conflict drives anger, and that anger/conflict makes people act more self-interested. Why is this a problem for organizations? Dozens of reasons. If those people are managers, they now pass their anger to their direct reports. And we don’t need any more self-interest in most workplaces. We got enough Type-A, KPI-chasing target-humpers as is. If anything, we could use more empathy. That probably isn’t walking through the door anytime soon, though.

Can we lessen workplace politics?

Absolutely not. Some people just thrive on the drama and the bullshit. The best thing you can do is navigate to the place that makes the most sense for you. The rise of “The Gig Economy” and freelance, though — I’d argue it kinda shows what we’ve known all along, which is: conventional work doesn’t do it for most people anymore. It’s tough when we exist in a tech-first knowledge economy and most of us still get managed as if we’re working in a factory in Illinois.

So what now?

Do the best you can. Be the best you can. Thrive, survive, and ultimately exit. Try a “zero fucks given” approach.

What else would you add about workplace politics, anger, and self-interest?

Ted Bauer

2 Comments

    • I agree it’s all about priorities at some level, right? But how amazing is it how many people — the sheer number of people — who spend all their time focusing on quantity of work as opposed to quality?

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