Office politics has long gotten a bad reputation: associated with grey cardinals, sneakiness and backstabbing, you will rarely catch a respectable coworker openly engaging in anything to do with "office" and "politics" in one sentence. We think it might be high time for a new attitude.
We are thinking about organizational culture all wrong
It is not all doom and gloom in the realm of the office political movement, however, we just think of it all wrong! According to a study on interpersonal power in organizations, individuals were more likely to become top performers if they possessed political skills. In fact, 93% of managers reported that workplace politics exist in their company, and 70% felt that in order to succeed, a person has to engage in politics (Gandz & Murray, 1980).
How they used their power and influence, is of course a whole different question.. When applied positively, political skills can help influence organizational outcomes on the whole as well as manage stress better on individual levels.
Don't let your company culture just happen
The first step to leverage the power of politics, is to understand it right and apply it to your company's existing structure. To succeed at that, you should build a culture of understanding and redefining organizational politics from the ground up. Who said that rational decision-making has to be necessarily at odds with political choices? Why can't you benefit from both? Abraham Zaleznik had a solution for you: apply an approach of "frank recognition of the importance of personality factors and a sensitive use of the strengths and limitations of people in decisions on power distributions" to improve the quality of organizational life altogether.
Defining organizational politics for the win
Recognizing the importance and inevitability of personalities playing a role is the first step to organizational recovery. The second step? Defining organizational politics once and for all.
According to a host of researchers, "organizational politics are informal, unofficial, and sometimes behind-the-scenes efforts to sell ideas, influence an organization, increase power, or achieve other targeted objectives" (Brandon & Seldman, 2004; Hochwarter, Witt, & Kacmar, 2000). Achieving organizational goals is the key there, for this makes the biggest difference between ego powerplay and a concentrated effort to grow and succeed as a company and a team.
Avoiding power scarcity
To create a more balanced structure to prevent ruthless organizational politics and promote fruitful cooperation instead, we need to understand why power struggles appear in the first place. Zaleznik further argues, that when individuals are inherently predisposed to compare and contrast their postition in comparison to others, they are more likely to compete for power. According to him, "scarcity of power arises under two sets of conditions:
1. Where individuals gain power in absolute terms at someone else’s expense.
2. Where there is a gain comparatively—not literally at someone else’s expense—resulting in a relative shift in the distribution of power."
What is in it for your organizational approach? To avoid creating power vacuums in your company's hierarchical pyramid, take promoting people into your own hands, create a transparent system for recognizing the most able players and make sure to behave accordingly. Once it has been established that an employee can only get ahead by being a team player, as well as a top performer, the power dynamic will shift towards the culture of helping others, as opposed to aiming to gain at the other's expence.
Organizational politics is dead. Long live organizational politics!
Admitting that internal politics exists and can benefit your organization will present you and your team with a positive attitude shift required to make the best of politics long-term.
Providing equal access to information, leading by example and rewarding team players will take you a long way towards encouraging a more transparent and productive company culture. Adding opportunities for bottom-up feedback for your managers and building a fluid hierarchy will further improve employee well-being and performance.
And if all else fails, you can always go for the grey cardinal Richelieu's advice to "carry on any enterprise as if all future success depended on it," making it your company's goal to get politically-minded employees on your side and not work against them.