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Joshua Bourdage, left, and Tunde Ogunfowora
Joshua Bourdage, left, and Tunde Ogunfowora

Leadership Lab

The pitfalls of office politics – and how to avoid them Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

Organizational politics are an inherent part of everyday life in the workplace. In a landscape of scarce resources, competing ideas and limited positions at the top of the corporate ladder, it is not surprising that playing the political game is seen to be a necessity in the modern organizational workplace.

As Greek philosopher Plato noted, “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”

While some baseline level of organizational politics may be acceptable – and perhaps inevitable – there appears to be wide variation in the extent to which an organization’s culture is characterized as being political. In other words, not all organizations have similar levels of organizational politics.

Many popular articles have been written on how to use organizational politics to one’s advantage. The question is, are organizational politics truly harmless?

The positive impact of organizational politics

Political behaviour in organizations can refer to many different tendencies. Some organizational politics are intuitively more legitimate and organizationally sanctioned, such as building positive connections and strong networks.

Other organizational politics are highly prevalent but far less positive, including impression management or exaggerating one’s accomplishments, flattering one’s boss or co-workers to gain favouritism, or even intimidating others into compliance.

Research shows that using certain behaviours – such as flattery and favour-doing – can translate into being viewed as a top performer, as well as long-term career success. Research also indicates that supervisors and co-workers are not particularly good at detecting when their employees are merely flattering versus complimenting for personal gain.

For people using these illegitimate political organizational behaviours, there can certainly be a positive impact. Similarly, many managers have noted that politics can be necessary to provide the best opportunities and resources for themselves and their teams.

Inevitability and unforeseen consequences

Despite some positive consequences, there is also a dark side to organizational politics. Organizations with higher levels of politics are characterized by favouritism, with rewards tied to power and social network rather than to the need for resources and objective performance. Those willing to play the political game can step over those who are not, with good performers being overlooked and resources distributed in a biased, inequitable way.

A recently published summary by Chu-Husiang Chang and colleagues in the Academy of Management Journal demonstrated that the more organizational politics employees perceive, the more stress and strain, decreased job satisfaction, and increased intent to leave the organization they report. In addition, job performance lowers as perceptions of organizational politics increases.

Recent research also shows that when an individual perceives more organizational politics, they begin to engage in more politics themselves, even among employees who would not normally be predisposed to such behaviour.

If organizational politics can lead to such a large number of pitfalls, what can organizations and managers do to solve the problem?

Practical solutions

First, it is incredibly important to ensure that the organization has clear and unbiased procedures surrounding critical human resource decisions, such as performance appraisal, pay and promotion. Without such processes, even the most well-intentioned manager can be unconsciously biased. Steps such as applying procedures consistently, allowing employees a voice in decisions, and making the effort to gather accurate and thorough information can have a tremendous positive impact on reducing the influence of political behaviour. Employees need to perceive that those with equal skills, experience and performance are rewarded and recognized equally.

In many cases organizations do operate fairly, but do not do a good job communicating this information to their employees, leading to misperceptions that decisions are unjust. This often leaves fair-minded managers scratching their heads and wondering why their employees feel things aren’t done fairly. Spending time communicating the information that is used to make decisions can reduce the negative impact of unfavorable decisions, something called the Fair Process Effect.

Finally, it is critical to identify people who are most likely to use illegitimate, self-serving political behaviour, as these individuals can perpetuate many of the problems discussed above.

Unfortunately, identifying manipulative, self-serving individuals in the workplace can be difficult – particularly because many supervisors are susceptible to these manipulative behaviours. However, research by Reinout De Vries at the University of Twente suggests that subordinates are actually the most attuned to the manipulative or political nature of supervisors, indicating that a well-designed feedback system that gathers information from those who work for an individual could provide some indication of potential problem employees.

Joshua Bourdage is an assistant professor in the industrial and organizational psychology specialization of the University of Calgary’s Department of Psychology.

Tunde Ogunfowora is an assistant professor in the human resources and organizational dynamics area at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business (@haskayneschool).

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