Office politics is a pervasive and often unwelcome aspect of the modern workplace, affecting professionals across industries, genders, and age groups.
Research indicates that office politics is more prevalent in larger organisations and tends to be more pronounced in competitive industries such as finance, law, and politics. While the gender split in engaging in office politics is relatively balanced, the manifestation of political behaviours may differ between men and women, with some studies suggesting that women are more likely to use indirect methods, such as relational aggression, compared to men.
Prevalence of office politics
A third (33%) of UK workers cite office politics as a major contributing factor to feelings of unhappiness in the workplace. Furthermore, this is experienced more commonly larger companies, with 85% of employees in businesses with over 1,000 employees reporting the existence of office politics.
Recognising office politics
Micromanagement is a classic example of this type of behaviour. It involves a colleague or supervisor excessively controlling or overseeing another’s work, often with the intention of discrediting or undermining them.
Example: Imagine a co-worker continually requesting updates on your tasks, offering unsolicited advice, and questioning your decisions, all while subtly implying that you can’t handle your responsibilities.
This occurs when someone takes credit for your ideas, contributions, or hard work, leaving you unacknowledged for your efforts.
Example: You present a ground-breaking idea at a team meeting, but a colleague interjects to claim credit for it, downplaying your role in front of the team and your superiors.
Scapegoating involves assigning blame to others, often unfairly, to divert attention from one’s own mistakes or failures.
Example: When a project goes awry, a co-worker consistently points fingers at you, highlighting your minor errors while neglecting their own significant contributions to the failure.
Some individuals employ manipulative flattery to gain favour or influence over others. They shower colleagues with compliments, but it’s often insincere and driven by ulterior motives.
Example: A co-worker continually praises your work and capabilities, but it becomes evident that they only do so when they need a favour or support for their agenda.
Information is power, and some individuals use it as a tool for office politics by withholding crucial data or insights from their colleagues.
Example: Your co-worker, who has access to important project information, refuses to share it with the team, creating a knowledge gap that hinders progress and decision-making.
This involves behaviours that erode trust among team members, such as spreading unfounded rumours, questioning colleagues’ motives, or sowing discord within the team.
Example: A colleague consistently tells others that you have hidden agendas and cannot be trusted, causing suspicion and unease within your team.
Understanding the motives behind office politics
Jealousy and insecurity
Jealousy and insecurity often drive office politics. Colleagues may feel threatened by your skills, achievements, or recognition, leading them to engage in undermining behaviours.
Example: A co-worker who perceives you as a rival within the company consistently downplays your accomplishments, belittles your achievements, and spreads false rumours about your work to diminish your reputation.
Ambition and self-preservation
Some individuals engage in this type of behaviour to advance their own careers or protect their positions within the company. They may use manipulation and alliances to achieve their goals.
Example: A colleague forms alliances with higher-ups to secure a promotion, even if it means undermining others and compromising team cohesion in the process.
Fear of change
Workplace tensions can also be fuelled by resistance to change. Some employees may use political tactics to resist new initiatives or processes that threaten their established routines.
Example: A co-worker consistently spreads negativity about a forthcoming company-wide restructuring, fuelling uncertainty and resistance among the team.
Individuals may engage in office politics to secure more resources, whether it’s budget allocations, project ownership, or access to coveted office space.
Example: A colleague aggressively pursues additional budgetary resources for their department, even at the expense of other teams’ needs, leading to conflicts and resentment.
Sometimes, politics in the workplace are driven by personal grudges or vendettas. Colleagues may use their influence to target individuals they have conflicts with.
Example: A co-worker who harbours a personal grudge against you consistently undermines your projects, spreads negative information, and actively works to damage your reputation within the company.
The negative impact of office politics: for employees
Decreased morale and job satisfaction
The impact of politics in the workplace on morale cannot be underestimated. When employees perceive a hostile or unfair work environment, their morale and job satisfaction can plummet. A Gallup study revealed that 42% of employees who experience office politics frequently are actively disengaged from their work.
Strategies for maintaining job satisfaction
To counteract this, employees can focus on maintaining their job satisfaction by seeking out supportive colleagues, setting boundaries, and practicing self-care. Building strong relationships with co-workers who share similar values and work ethics can help create a positive support system.
Increased stress and burnout
Office politics is a significant source of stress in the workplace. The American Institute of Stress reports that workplace stress is a primary contributor to employee burnout, and workplace tensions can exacerbate this stress.
Coping mechanisms to prevent employee burnout
Employees can mitigate stress and burnout by developing effective coping mechanisms. These may include practicing mindfulness, time management techniques, and seeking support from HR or management when necessary. Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is also crucial to managing stress effectively.
Decreased team cohesion and collaboration
When office politics run rampant, it can lead to decreased team cohesion and collaboration. Research by Harvard Business Review shows that employees who engage in political behaviours are less likely to collaborate with their colleagues, hindering the organisation’s ability to achieve its goals.
Fostering a collaborative work environment
To combat this, companies must actively promote a collaborative work environment. This can be achieved by recognising and rewarding teamwork, fostering open communication, and providing team-building opportunities, such as workshops or team-building exercises.
How to deal with office politics in the moment
Dealing with office culture requires a proactive and strategic approach. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to handle this type of behaviour in the moment effectively:
- Stay calm: When confronted with office politics, maintain your composure. Reacting emotionally can exacerbate the situation.
- Gather information: Collect evidence and information about the situation. Document instances of office politics, including dates, times, and individuals involved.
- Self-reflection: Reflect on your own behaviour and actions in the situation. Ensure you are not inadvertently contributing to the political dynamics.
- Seek clarity: If you’re uncertain about someone’s motives or actions, consider having a private conversation to gain clarity and address any misunderstandings.
- Engage in open communication: Encourage open, honest, and respectful communication with the individuals involved. Share your concerns and attempt to find common ground or a resolution.
- Consult a trusted colleague or supervisor: Reach out to a trusted colleague or supervisor for guidance and support. They may offer valuable insights and assistance in navigating the situation.
- Involve HR or management: If the workplace tensions escalate or persist, involve your HR department or upper management. They can provide mediation, investigate the issue, and take appropriate action if necessary.
- Focus on your wellbeing: Prioritise your wellbeing by practicing self-care, managing stress, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Don’t let tension at work take a toll on your mental and emotional health.
- Build allies: Cultivate relationships with colleagues who share your values and work ethic. These allies can provide support and help counteract the negative effects of office politics.
- Keep a long-term perspective: Remember that office politics are often temporary, and individuals who engage in harmful behaviours may not thrive in the long run. Focus on your professional growth and goals.
The negative impact of office politics: for employers
Decreased employee engagement
Office politics can lead to decreased employee engagement, which has broader implications for business success. A study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that organisations with high levels of office politics experienced lower levels of employee engagement, with only 27% of employees being engaged in such environments.
Strategies to boost employee engagement
Employers can improve engagement by addressing the overall workplace culture, promoting transparency, and involving employees in decision-making processes. It’s essential for a business to prioritise a culture of respect, fairness, and open communication to create an environment where employees feel engaged and valued.
High turnover rates
High levels of office politics are often associated with increased turnover rates. A report by Work Institute reveals that employees who leave their jobs cite issues related to interpersonal conflicts and politics as a significant reason for their departure, with 37% of employees leaving for this reason.
Reducing employee turnover
To reduce turnover, a company must proactively address office politics. This includes providing conflict resolution training, promoting a healthy work culture, and creating opportunities for employees to voice their concerns and seek resolution.
Reduced business performance
Office politics can hinder overall business performance. A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that office politics negatively affect employee performance and job satisfaction, leading to decreased overall productivity.
How to enhance business performance
Employers can implement measures such as performance management systems, regular feedback, and leadership training to mitigate the impact of office politics on performance. Creating a work environment where employees feel valued, heard, and supported can boost overall productivity despite the challenges of office politics.
How to navigate office politics: as an employer
Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)
EAPs are employer-sponsored programs designed to assist employees in dealing with personal or workplace issues, including those stemming from office tensions. They offer confidential counselling and support services to help employees manage stress, cope with conflict, and maintain their mental and emotional wellbeing. Utilising EAPs can be a valuable resource for employees facing the adverse effects of office politics.
Diversity and inclusion
Promoting diversity and inclusion within the workplace is not only ethically sound but also an effective strategy for reducing office politics. In diverse and inclusive environments, employees are more likely to collaborate, respect differing perspectives, and appreciate each other’s contributions. Organisations that prioritise diversity and inclusion tend to experience lower levels of office politics.
In our section on employee impacts, we discussed the importance of building resilience to cope with the challenges of workplace issues. Building resilience involves developing the ability to bounce back from setbacks and adapt to difficult situations. This skill can be nurtured through various strategies, including mindfulness practices, stress reduction exercises, and time management techniques.
Conflict resolution training
Effective conflict resolution is key to managing workplace issues. Conflict resolution training equips employees with the skills and knowledge needed to address workplace conflicts constructively. It provides techniques for de-escalating situations, facilitating productive conversations, and finding mutually beneficial solutions.
Office politics, when taken to extreme levels, can have legal implications for both individuals and organisations. Harassment, discrimination, and hostile work environments can lead to costly legal battles. It’s crucial to be aware of the legal aspects and implications of office politics and know when and how to seek legal counsel when necessary.
In conclusion, navigating office politics is a challenging but necessary aspect of professional life. Recognising its various forms, understanding the motives behind it, and addressing its negative impact are essential steps toward creating a healthier and more productive work environment. By implementing the strategies outlined in this guide, both employees and employers can work together to mitigate the detrimental effects of office politics and foster a workplace culture of transparency, collaboration, and success.