The Politics of Politics


I’ve been reading a bit lately about politics at work. In my opinion, politics exists in every organization once you have more than one employee. Politics represents the unspoken “way” things get done at the office.

One of the things I find most interesting about politics is the reaction that occurs with many when you even meantion the topic. The reactions range from a shudder to down right indignation and denial that politics exist. I have even found those who say that they don’t play politics. My response to those who deny playing politics is that unless you speak fully what’s on your mind in an unvarnished way at work, you are playing politics. The simple act of what to say to whom is politics. And it’s not necessarily bad.

In an effort to decriminalize the topic, I want to share a few thoughts about how I think about politics. Somewhere in my career, I realized that there was a game being played at work. Not everyone seemed to be in on the game, but a few people seemed to play this game very well. Those who played the game skillfully seemed to enjoy their jobs more than others and they also seemed to be able to get things done that others couldn’t. So, I started to try to understand the game myself. Below is a few of the key rules that I learned about the game.

  1. Know what is important to others and communicate what you want to get done in those terms. What is important to you isn’t relevant to others, they are focused on themselves. If they think you can help them get what they want, they will help you get what you want.
  2. Build relationships everywhere and do as many favors as possible for others. Building up some social capital in the organization is the most critical thing you can do. People will help people they like. People will also go out of their way to return a favor. Use both of these concepts to your advantage.
  3. Find out the history of things because people have long memories. Many times, something is being done because that’s what way we’ve always done it. In other situations, you can’t get something done because it was tried 10 years ago and failed and “we aren’t going to make that mistake again.” By knowing the history, you can know what you are up against, particularly if you are trying to lead change.
  4. Never under estimate any person’s motivation to act in their own self-interest. Regardless of how strong your relationship is with someone, know that they will protect their career and themselves 99 times out of a 100 when given that option over sacrificing themselves for you. So, refer back to rule 1 and don’t rely on others to do noble things. When people do noble things for you, recognize that you have found a rare friend and treat that person accordingly.
  5. Finally, and probalby most importantly, commit to the change you are trying to make. Whatever you are trying to accomplish should be important enough that you’d be willing to let someone else take the credit for accomplishing it. If you are working on important work that really matters to your organization, then some of the “bad” politics won’t matter as much. Commit yourself to results over personal credit. It’s less likely that you will make a fatal career move if you are committed to the greater good over personal gain.

Politics can be bad, but that has more to do with the individual’s motives than the policitcs themselves.



  1. I have always thought it interesting that this sub-culture lying behind the thinly veiled facade of corporate culture is not addressed in employee orientation. It's also one of the reasons I feel people start a job and wash out in the first 90 days. LinkedIn and other social networks are great ways to find someone on the inside before you sign on.. getting the scoop before you make the move and finding a reliable mentor once you're there is important to a successful transition.

  2. I agree Karla. But, it is challenging to teach politics at orientation sometimes because at many organizations, the politics are counter to the "stated culture." I do think that social media is having an impact on politics by making it easier to gain connections and information both from outside and from within the organization.

    Thanks for the comment. -Jason

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