ASK most people about workplace politics, and they’ll say they prefer to avoid them. And yet most also know that developing political competence is not a choice — it’s a necessity. But do we all need to play games every day at work? Not necessarily.
The degree to which you engage in politics depends on where you work. Consider these four levels of politics in organisations:
1. In minimally political companies what you see is largely what you get. Standards for promotions and expectations for managing and leading are made clear. There is a sense of camaraderie. Rules are occasionally bent and favours granted, but underhanded forms of politics are avoided. This is the type of organisation in which those with little understanding of or interest in politics — the purists among us — can thrive.
2. Moderately political organisations also operate largely on widely understood, formally sanctioned rules. Political behaviour, where it does exist, is low-key or deniable. Conflicts are unusual, as there is a team-player mentality. This environment works for people who’d rather not engage in politics, but who are capable of managing or living with pockets of political activity.
3. The highly political arena is one in which not understanding politics and being unwilling to engage in some of its more surreptitious forms can exact a price. Formally sanctioned rules are only invoked when convenient to those with power. Who you know is likely to be more important than what you know. Working in organisations like this can be very stressful. Political street fighters who “read the tea leaves” and “know the ropes” do far better than those who don’t keep abreast of the games being played.
4. The most virulent forms of business politics occur in pathologically political organisations. Nearly every goal is achieved by going around people or formal procedures. People distrust each other — and for good reason. Out of necessity, people spend a good deal of time watching their backs and far less gets done than might otherwise be achieved.
So, how do you know which type of organisation you’re working in, and how do you develop the skills to survive there? Start by identifying the type of arena in which you work, as well as your own personal style. Is there a good match? If you’re a purist working in a highly political environment, for example, you need to become more street smart or move on. If it’s not in your nature to be political, then the latter may be the better choice.
(Adapted from Office Politics Isn’t Something You Can Sit Out, at HBR.org.)
© 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp