Office politics: Why human resources needs to be more politically intelligent

I see them everywhere, across all industries and organisations, and like lambs to the slaughter they steadfastly refuse to acknowledge organisational politics, all while being shafted by those who abuse their political awareness. They say, in righteous tones: “But it shouldn’t work like that” “I should be rewarded on the basis of what I do, not how I promote myself” and “I don’t want to be like that to be political.”

And yet it is like that, and by sticking their heads in the sand they deny reality. The biggest problem with most people is not about political skills, but their complete resistance to acknowledging and dealing with office politics.

The world should be another way, they say. It should not be about politics and self-promotion. But human beings are driven to compete as much as we collaborate. Since the earliest days of nomadic tribes wandering in the wilderness we wanted to know who to follow – who will provide safety, shelter and food – as being out of the tribe meant almost certain death.

Yet many of us persist in the belief that organisations shouldn’t work like that. Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert cartoons, in The Dilbert Principle develops the argument that the problem with human beings is that we are all idiots, but not all of the time. We have moments of idiocy, but in business and organisations we seem to believe that this shouldn’t happen.

It is essentially the same problem that we have with politics. We know that human beings are rivalrous and competitive, yet when we move into the workplace we believe that it shouldn’t happen, and we deny our own competitiveness.

In part, this comes from our way of seeing organisations as machines, which should operate as finely tuned instruments of efficiency. This began in the days of Ford and assembly-line production, and while most people acknowledge that this isn’t how organisations work, we still hold on emotionally to a view that they should.

It also comes from a reluctance in our politically correct society for many of us to admit to ourselves our rivalry and competitiveness. We deny that so that we don’t have to be ‘one of them’ ‘political’. This saves us, ultimately, from taking leadership and taking responsibility for our future careers – it is their fault when we are not recognised for the brilliance of our work.

We can sit in coffee rooms or stand around water coolers gossiping with others who aren’t political about how political it all is ‘up there’, and how the people who run the organisation should recognise that it’s us who do all the work.

If this is you, if you recognise yourself in the comments above, what should you do?

Well first you need to accept that politics is just a part of organisational life – denying it is a sure way to be a victim of it. Second, you need to take responsibility for yourself and your career. Those who are ‘upstairs’, in the organisational sense, cannot know about everything that goes on – there’s just too much to keep track of. It’s up to you to let them know. Third, network. Yeah, I know it doesn’t always feel comfortable, but you need to get to know the people who work around you, in different departments, and in other parts of the organisational hierarchy. You’ll find this invaluable for getting your job done, as well as for your political ability.

And finally, stay true to your values. Some of you say that by even engaging with politics you are abandoning your values, but I argue that it is possible to have a sense of integrity in what you do with your political awareness and network. Are you acting solely for your own personal benefit, in which case your behaviour is that of the political people you decry? Or are you acting for the benefit of the organisation and its customers?

Always be able to answer that question for yourself and you’ll stay on the right side of your values.

Peter Hamill, senior consultant, Roffey Park Institute

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