Self-serving behavior. Cliques. Politicking. Office gossip. Unwritten rules. Politically savvy gatekeepers collecting and distributing power and influence.
Organizational politics: if you’ve worked in an organization longer than a week or so, you’ve seen it. It can take many forms, all of them destructive; threatening organizational outcomes and stifling a positive work environment.
We all know that organizational politics harm teamwork and organizational health. But overcoming them in a complex organization is far from straightforward.
In this post, we’re giving you an overview of the types of organizational politics and the risks of letting them run unchecked. Then we’ll show you five proven tips HR professionals and organizational leaders can use to manage organizational politics.
What is organizational politics?
Organizational politics is easy to recognize but hard to define. It’s a collective group of actions, unwritten rules, and tactics that individuals and groups use to gain some kind of advantage in the workplace – usually power or influence.
You could also look at organizational politics as the negative side to office culture or workplace culture: it’s the feel of the place more than anything tangible or concrete. It’s why you ‘just know’ not to talk to that department about a particular topic or why pushing back against Trina or Fred is practically guaranteed to damage your career.
Organizational politics is present in every organization – but you can manage its degree, scope, and influence.
Types of organizational politics
Most instances of organizational politics can fall into one or more of five buckets:
The newspaper editor who ‘steals’ a story from a reporter, taking the reporter’s research and publishing a story without attribution. That one unbelievably frustrating person in Sales who just won’t stop talking about the latest deal they closed. The brash individual in meetings who constantly talks over people and claims others’ ideas as their own.
It’s all self-promotion: a person building themselves up or acting in self-interest at others’ expense. It’s incredibly demoralizing to the people being trampled, stolen from, or shouted down. And it can often backfire on the self-promoter, too.
Office politics are the day-to-day influence campaigns and unwritten rules. Think of persuasion not based on the merits of the desired outcome but on political factors, like who might get upset and who might look good.
It’s influence through tactics rather than ‘may the best idea win’.
A gatekeeper is someone who has already gathered a degree of power, whether by merit, seniority, longevity, or personality. To get your idea through (or to get that promotion), everyone knows you’ve got to get through Gary – he’s the gatekeeper. As a result, everyone treats Gary with respect (or faux-respect), and Gary’s life and job get easier.
Organizations are filled with natural gatekeepers, and that isn’t all bad. Bosses exist for a reason: not every idea they field is a good one, and an organization would grind to a halt without some way to cull or prioritize ideas.
The trouble comes when a gatekeeper oversteps those natural structures and hierarchies. When a manager in one department suddenly gains informal gatekeeping control over three adjacent departments, something goes wrong. The same goes when an employee becomes the gatekeeper for peer-level employees.
Territorialism looks just like it does in the animal kingdom: anytime someone steps into this employee’s turf (be it a project, speaking up in a meeting, or challenging a decision), they’re met with a menacing reaction that tells them they’d better back off or things are about to get messy.
People can get territorial about processes, projects, workflows, and even physical spaces.
The risks of unregulated organizational politics
Each of these five types of organizational politics sounds pretty negative just in everyday discussion. But what are the actual risks of letting these behaviors and unwritten rules run your workplace?
One leading HR education firm identified these specific risks and negative effects of organizational politics, backed up by over a decade of academic studies:
- Higher levels of stress, including the fear of running into invisible rules or boundaries or even losing a job
- Lower productivity levels as resources and brainpower divert to navigating office politics
- Retention issues and degraded workplace culture (high cynicism, low morale, low job satisfaction)
- Higher employee turnover, making it difficult for organizations to find appropriately skilled staff
- Burnout – especially HR burnout and breakdown from the toll of resolving the endless issues spawned by organizational politics
- Poor communication degrades performance as people are afraid to share or aren’t sure whether to share information
- Resentment of coworkers, superiors, and even the company as a whole.
HR tips for managing organizational politics
From a human resources perspective, there are various reasons to manage organizational politics’ reach and scope. But since everything involved within organizational politics is inherently informal, tackling it with HR policies (which lean toward formal structures) can be tricky.
Try these tips to keep organizational politics at bay and ultimately work toward organizational change.
Create an open and honest environment for your employees
Political behavior thrives in environments that lack structure and openness. Self-serving workplace politics tend to take over when people aren’t confident that they can take concerns to superiors without suffering for it. The same is true when people aren’t sure what’s right or who’s actually running the show.
Instead of silos of information, secrecy, and ambiguity, push for an environment where employees know they can be honest – and where they can expect others to be honest with them. Work for a culture of openness as well: policies and procedures should be stored in visible, accessible places, not hidden.
Set clear expectations
Organizational politics flourish when there’s ambiguity or a lack of clarity about expectations, too.
Vagueness and unclear policies create a situation where people aren’t entirely sure what success or high performance looks like. Opportunists jump at the chance to interject their answers to these questions, defining success in ways that benefit them, not the organization.
So, as an HR professional or internal communicator, work to eliminate ambiguity. Set clear expectations in policy and communications, and encourage your leaders to model the right behavior. By adding this kind of clarity, you’ll cut off one avenue where would-be workplace politicians love to exert influence.
Setting clear expectations is one place where internal communications matter. Having a functional internal communications blog, wiki, or social intranet is key to setting clear expectations because it allows you to share those expectations effectively.
Workvivo is an ideal solution that solves the ‘where’ and the ‘how’, giving you a centralized location for employee comms that your employees will actually want to use.
Looking for inspiration on how to succeed with an internal comms blog? Check out 50 of our favorite internal comms blogs.
Be fair and consistent in your decision-making
Nothing fuels resentment more than when organizational politics lead to unequal outcomes. If two employees commit the same violation, the response should be similar, if not equal (barring any mitigating circumstances like repeat offenses or lack of knowledge).
Unfortunately, most of us can picture situations where those who have already garnered power through politics have gotten away with more. Leaders in your organization – and even in HR – aren’t immune to organizational politics.
Here are a few practical tips:
- Work toward the consistent application of guidelines
- Always check prior similar incidents to ensure fair and consistent treatment
- Let policy, not politics, guide decision-making in every HR encounter.
Be proactive in addressing problems
Many managers have encountered some variation of this maxim: the longer a problem festers, the harder it is to address.
That’s because an unaddressed problematic behavior quickly becomes an assumed accepted behavior. When you step in weeks or months later to address it, questions of fairness arise instantly.
- “Why was it OK when they did the same thing last month?”
- “Are you confronting me because I’m ____?”
- “I’ve watched my boss do this exact thing for years.”
It’s not hard to see how questions of fairness here could escalate beyond just perceptions of organizational politics, becoming questions of discrimination. The solution is easy – at least on paper: proactively address problems, and apply consequences consistently and fairly.
Be a role model
Whether you’re a manager, leader, or member of the HR team, people look to you. They will observe what you do and how you engage in organizational politics – and how you don’t. They’ll notice when you play someone else’s game and when you refuse to do so.
So, the way you respond to organizational politics when you encounter them can make a big difference. If people see you self-promoting or inappropriately gatekeeping, they will take note – and they just might follow in your footsteps.
Build a healthy workplace dynamic with Workvivo
Organizational politics can be challenging to navigate, but doing so is vital to your organizational goals and a healthy workplace culture.
Implementing the tips we’ve provided here will jumpstart your efforts to rein in unhealthy organizational politics. But for the greatest success, you need the right set of tools in place. You need tools that can foster open communication, serve as an accessible location for business information, and even build workplace camaraderie. Workvivo’s social intranet is the modern solution that meets all three objectives – and many more. It’s a great addition to your HR and operations toolsets, providing an effective way to get (and stay) on top of unhealthy workplace dynamics, including organizational politics.