Tao of the Zentropist

October 20, 2010

On (Office) Politics

“War is a continuation of politics by other means…”

Carl von Clausewitz

A few days ago, while performing research on another unrelated matter, I stumbled across an interesting article written by Don Tennant on IT Business Edge entitled, “10 Reasons to Avoid Office Politics.” While I admire the spirit in which the article was written, and actually agree with Don’s reasoning (which was written in response to information on Salary.com encouraging the practice of office politicking in order to get ahead), as a pragmatist I believe that holding oneself aloof from office politics, as well-intentioned as it may be, can seriously backfire and like it or not, acquiring the skills to outmaneuver those that resort to this practice is part of one’s job (and even life) survival toolkit.


One reality that must be acknowledged is that by definition, interaction among two or more individuals in any social setting (and make no mistake, the workplace is a social setting, more so for some than others) immediately establishes a power baseline, in which the two individuals, consciously or not, establish a relationship which may be more complex and dynamic than either are aware. At the risk of being misinterpreted, all relationships, whether professional, personal (e.g. based on notions of friendship), romantic or casual acquaintances, have either a formally acknowledged balance of power and/or some expectations of reciprocity. Humans, like most animal species, inherently establish a social order and dominance, and while this admission may be offensive to some, wishing it weren’t so or pretending it doesn’t exist can be highly detrimental to one’s career.

While office politics may take many forms, more often than not the most insidious and subversive expression of this “great game” is the back-biting and hard feelings engendered by playing different people, if not entire departments, off of each other in order to realize some personal agenda or gain.  Sometimes this is done to mark one’s territory or to curry favor with others (typically of higher rank and authority) within the organization, but sometimes it’s done for the perverse pleasure of sowing chaos to underscore one’s “importance” or to position oneself as a “broker” of favors, with the full expectation that payback (with interest) will be expected in the future.

While it’s not necessarily true in all instances, some of the most adept and accomplished office politicos tend to be those who are most inept, incompetent and eager to shirk responsibilities by assigning these tasks to others in order to cover for their shortcomings. Typically, these people have well-developed office survival skills and have learned how to manipulate corporate bureaucracies or enjoy favored status with higher-level management, which is why they manage to flourish even if harder-working and more accomplished employees could outperform them if given the opportunity.  While we typically like to believe that workplace promotions are based on merit, even in environments where hard metrics and incisive performance evaluations are utilized, allowing one’s “soft skills” to atrophy can blemish and otherwise distinguished history of accomplishments.


One of the most challenging situations to deal with in a workplace environment is when a co-worker, especially one with longer tenure or more prestige and power in the organization, is working behind the scenes to discredit you or actively sabotage your efforts.  While perhaps many are familiar with “The Prince” by Machiavelli, which is arguably one of the earliest literary works to address realpolitik, a more recent book which contains a great deal of wisdom (and admittedly, perhaps a healthy dose of cynicism about the human condition) regarding relationships is Robert Greene’s “The 48 Laws of Power.” Among the laws that Greene advances are the following:

  • Never Outshine The Master
  • Never Put Too Much Trust In Friends, Learn How To Use Enemies
  • Conceal Your Intentions
  • Always Say Less Than Necessary

And if you’re seeing a certain pattern beginning to emerge, bear in mind these are merely the first four of his laws! With that being said, I do believe there is a context which must govern the application of these “laws,” and in relationships where true openness and honesty are expected and desired (if such a thing is indeed possible), those who abide by these rules are really “stacking the deck” and not living up to such lofty ideals.

While many of us would tend to be inclined to take the moral high ground and condemn Greene’s observations on how to wield power, there is an argument to be made that when dealing with people that act without scruples, or seek to deceive others through outright fabrications or lies of omission (which they may believe to be harmless, but seldom are), it is morally acceptable and even defensible to deflect their energies and stratagems back at them. For example, if dealing with someone in a position of authority that has raging insecurities, the worst thing one can do is threaten their authority or position, even if unintentionally, by outshining them or failing to call attention to the correctness and efficacy of their actions.


There is little doubt in my mind that among the keys to satisfaction with one’s career and working life is to continuously build upon one’s skills in both breadth and depth, while hopefully aligning these with one’s interests and fundamental passions, but we must also accept the fact that in challenging economic times, many people must resort to not necessarily, “Following their bliss” but simply working to survive.

In an “employer’s market,” workers that lack sufficient interpersonal skills, which include the ability to be cunning and perhaps quite circumspect when necessary, may find themselves outmaneuvered by those more willing to engage directly in subterfuge or outright deception. While it’s relatively easy to condemn politics in the workplace, escaping it is probably a chimera, and staking one’s future on illusory beliefs is a poor strategy indeed…

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.