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Ethical Office Politics

Ethical Office Politics

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.

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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.


Difficult Decisions

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?

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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.

Allocating Resources

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.

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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.

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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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Last Updated on January 21, 2020

5 Steps To Move Out Of Stagnancy In Life

5 Steps To Move Out Of Stagnancy In Life

In the journey of growth, there are times when we grow and excel. We are endlessly driven and hyped up, motivated to get our goals.

Then there are times when we stagnate. We feel uninspired and unmotivated. We keep procrastinating on our plans. More often than not, we get out of a rut only to get back into another one.

How do you know if you are stagnating? Here are some tell-tale signs:

  • If you have been experiencing chronic procrastination on your goals
  • If you don’t ever feel like doing anything
  • If you keep turning to sleep, eating, games, mindless activities and entertainment for comfort
  • If you know you should be doing something, but yet you keep avoiding it
  • If you have not achieved anything new or significant now relative to 1 month, 2 months or 3 months ago
  • If you have a deep sense of feeling that you are living under your potential

When we face stagnation in life, it’s a sign of deeper issues. Stagnancy in life, just like procrastination, is a symptom of a problem. It’s easy to beat ourselves over it, but this approach is not going to help.

Here, I will share 5 steps to help you move out of this stagnation. They won’t magically transform your life in 1 night (such changes are never permanent because the foundations are not built), but they will help you get the momentum going and help you get back on track.

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1. Realize You’re Not Alone

Everyone stagnates at some point or another. You are not alone in this and more importantly, it’s normal. In fact, it’s amazing how many of my clients actually face the same predicament, even though all of them come from different walks of life, are of different ages, and have never crossed paths.

Realizing you are not alone in this will make it much easier to deal with this period. By trying to “fight it”, you’re only fighting yourself. Accept this situation, acknowledge it, and tell yourself it’s okay. That way, you can then focus on the constructive steps that will really help you.

2. Find What Inspires You

Stagnation comes because there isn’t anything that excites you enough to take action. If you don’t have a habit of setting goals, and instead just leave yourself to daily mundanes, it’s not surprising you are experiencing stagnation.

What do you want to do if there are no limitations? If you can have whatever you want, what will it be? The answers to these questions will provide the fuel that will drive you forward.

On the other hand, even if you are an experienced goal setter, there are times when the goals you set in the past lose their appeal now. It’s normal and it happens to me too. Sometimes we lose touch with our goals, since we are in a different emotional state compared to when we first set them. Sometimes our priorities change and we no longer want to work on those goals anymore. However, we don’t consciously realize this, and what happens is we procrastinate on our goals until it compounds into a serious problem.

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If that’s the case for you, it’s time to relook into your goals. There’s no point in pursuing goals that no longer inspire you. Trash away your old goals (or just put them aside) and ask yourself what you really want now. Then go for them.

3. Give Yourself a Break

When’s the last time you took a real break for yourself? 3 months? 6 months? 1 year? Never? Perhaps it’s time to take a time-out. Prolonged working can cause someone to become disillusioned as they lose sight of who they are and what they want.

Go take some extended leave from work. A few days at bare minimum; a few weeks or months will be great. Some of my ex-colleagues have quit their jobs and took months out to do some self-reflection. Of course, some of us might not have that luxury, so we can stick to a few weeks of leave.

Go on a trip elsewhere and get away from your work and your life. Use this chance to get a renewed perspective of life. Think about your life purpose, what you want and what you want to create for your life in the future.

These are big questions that require deep thinking over them. It’s not about finding the answers at one go, but about taking the first step to finding the answers.

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4. Shake up Your Routines

Being in the same environment, doing the same things over and over again and meeting the same people can make us stagnant. This is especially if the people you spend the most time with are stagnant themselves.

Change things around. Start with simple things, like taking a different route to work and eating something different for breakfast. Have your lunch with different colleagues, colleagues you never talked much with. Work in a different cubicle if your work has free and easy seating. Do something different than your usual for weekday evenings and weekends. Cultivate different habits, like exercising every day, listening to a new series of podcasts every morning to work, reading a book, etc (here’re 6 Proven Ways To Make New Habits Stick). The different contexts will give you different stimulus, which will trigger off different thoughts and actions in you.

When I’m in a state of stagnancy, I’ll get a sense of what’s making me stagnate. Sometimes it’s the environment I’m in, sometimes it’s the people I’ve been hanging out with, sometimes it’s my lifestyle. Most of the times it’s a combination of all these. Changing them up helps to stir myself out of the stagnant mode.

5. Start with a Small Step

Stagnation also comes from being frozen in fear. Maybe you do want this certain goal, but you aren’t taking action. Are you overwhelmed by the amount of work needed? Are you afraid you will make mistakes? Is the perfectionist in you taking over and paralyzing you?

Let go of the belief that it has to be perfect. Such a belief is a bane, not a boon. It’s precisely from being open to mistakes and errors that you move forward.

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Break down what’s before you into very very small steps, then take those small steps, a little step at a time. I had a client who had been stagnating for a long period because he was afraid of failing. He didn’t want to make another move where he would make a mistake. However, not wanting to make a mistake has led him to do absolutely nothing for 2-3 years.

On the other hand, by doing just something, you would already be making progress, whether it’s a mistake or not. Even if you make a supposed “mistake”,  you get feedback to do things differently in the next step. That’s something you would never have known if you never made a move.

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Featured photo credit: Anubhav Saxena via unsplash.com

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