Organizations are full of decisions and choices. The route to getting something done, to making a sale, or distributing a product, is full of decisions, some large, many small. However much effort goes into setting procedures and policies, it’s impossible to anticipate every choice that will be faced—especially since many of them are about choosing between options that are both desirable.
Organizations are social places too. The economic basis for people coming together to work in groups and teams may be to achieve things they cannot do alone, but since people naturally enjoy being with others, the social aspect of work is never far below the surface.
These two facts, taken together, explain why office politics are an inevitable part of any working environment. When choices need to be made that aren’t covered by explicit rules (and that’s most of them), there has to be a mechanism for choosing. Where resources must be allocated and shared, people seek to influence the outcome. And where people come together in a social environment, some will seek to lead and others be content to follow.
Office politics cannot be avoided, however many people regard them with distaste and try to avoid getting involved. Too often they smack of dirty tricks and the use of personal influence in the interests of a few, powerful individuals, conjuring up a picture of secret deals in back rooms and pay-offs in favors given and expected. Ethically, most instances of office politics tend to be dubious.
Let’s assume that office politics are an unavoidable fact of organizational life. We can’t avoid encountering them. The ethical question then becomes how we act when we do.To make sense of this, you need to distinguish between three aspects of political actions:
- Making decisions where there are no rules or precedents to guide you.
- Handling the allocation of resources.
- Creating a “pecking order” of influence.
People are emotional creatures. They like to believe they use reason to work out what to do when there’s nothing much to guide them, but this is an illusion. They make decisions largely on the basis of emotions (fear, desire, hope, faith), then use reason to justify what they have already decided.
How does this work to create office politics? When you’re faced with a difficult decision and no clear guidance, you tend to think about what others will make of whatever you decide. Will they approve or criticize? Will you trespass on someone else’s turf? How much freedom do you have to make a decision without consultation?
Fear is one of the commonest emotions, so it’s natural to worry about the outcome and seek reassurance. That’s where office politics comes in. By consulting someone who has influence, or avoiding anything that might upset a powerful person, you gain a measure of safety. Patronage, the power of advancing friends and protecting them from harm, is the main benefit of being politically influential. People who aspire to political power are keen to use and extend their patronage by offering protection and support to their friends when difficult decisions must be faced. Office politics play a significant role in every major decision. These decisions offers scope for extending patronage, lessening the influence of your enemies, and adding more grateful people to your circle of dependents.
Companies spend millions of dollars on complex procedures for setting and reviewing budgets to decide how resources are allocated. Yet however much financial and statistical firepower is expended in this process, these decisions can never be wholly rational or objective, because the choices are too complex and uncertain to be resolved in mechanical ways. In every budget decision, there;s an element of guesswork about how things will turn out. In some, there’s little else. Yet you have to choose.
You could toss a coin, but that wouldn’t look very good (though it would often be better than the means many organizations actually use). Office politics comes to the rescue. By instituting a process of persuasion and influence, you can seem to be making rational decisions, even where there’s nothing definite to guide you. Let everyone come forward and make their case, then decide which seems strongest. Of course, the strongest decision isnit always (or usually) made on the basis of rational considerations. Because we’re human, and fear reprisals from powerful people or hope for favors, we tend to give some people’s arguments extra weight. Besides, when the people who make the final choices also stand to benefit from them, a little horse-trading is inevitable. You back my budget and I’ll back yours. You thwart me and I’ll take any opportunity to pay you back in kind. That’s how the world goes.
The Pecking Order
People are not created equal. Some are more assertive, more daring, more greedy or stronger than others. Take any group and you’ll find a hierarchy of power and influence. Some people long for power and will do almost anything to obtain it. Some long for riches, others recognition, and others want love (or at least the semblance of it).
When formal means of gaining recognition and position aren’t adequate (as is almost invariably the case), people exploit informal ones. Being seen as someone “in the know,” a “mover and shaker” or “a good person to have on your side” confers power. In many cases, this informal hierarchy of political influence is more influential than the formal hierarchy. The common process of “kicking someone upstairs” (awarding a grand-sounding title and position that lacks any real power) proves this.
The upper reaches of most organizations are strikingly like golf clubs. There are hosts of unwritten rules of etiquette and behavior that you break at your peril. Being the best player is not always the route to the top positions. There’s generally a ruling elite which guards its prerogatives fiercely and admits new members only after making sure they will fit in (do nothing to upset the power of existing people) and show the right stuff (speak and act in ways that the ruling elite approves). Formal decisions are preceded by informal discussions amongst those in power to ensure that nothing is done of which they don’t approve in advance. Horse-trading between the great and mighty is the accepted way of allocating resources and influence.
Ethical Office Politics
If office politics are inevitable, can they be handled ethically? I believe there can, and it’s a crucial element in making a working environment that respects people and allows them freedom to grow and develop.
The basic principle of all ethical action is to promote happiness and well-being and do no harm. You could say ethics is the art of living together in a civilized way. Organizations without much ethical sense tend to live by some version of the law of the jungle. The strongest, most cunning and most unscrupulous people grab all they can. Weaker ones are exploited and despised.
In contrast, any ethical approach to organizational life requires self-restraint in pursuit of an ultimate goal: a business that operates smoothly and promotes the well-being of its employees, customers and the society of which it’s a part. An ethical business is one that is civilized; that it seeks to promote itself as part of a civilized community.
Ethics are always needed where you face choices. The basis for an ethical approach to politics at work is simple. You need to consider your actions in the clear light of the most likely result. Emotions are a poor guide. They tempt you to exchange short-term pleasure (seeing the hated colleague in trouble) for long-term problems (when he or she finds cleverer ways to mess you up in revenge). Rules, even moral ones, rarely cover more than a narrow range of situations. Besides, most people are good at reinterpreting the rules to allow them to do whatever they want—and act as injured innocents if they’re caught.
However you imagine what working life would be like without ethics, the result is fearful. Ethics are their own reward, not in the abstract sense of being right, but in the practical sense that a life without them would be unlivable. All you need to do is consider a greater purpose than your own immediate desires. Civilization has been around for some thousands of years. Sadly, it’s still something many people can’t seem to understand. An ethical approach to working life depends on standards of thinking and acting you impose on yourself, to free yourself from anxiety and regret and increase your satisfaction and happiness—and the happiness of everyone you deal with. An ethical approach to office politics is the same. Simple, isn’t it?
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