Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Understanding Politics (Office and Otherwise)

“Politics, n.  A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.”

-Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, 1906 -

Take this test to see if you have office politics in your organization.

        1) Count the employees.

        2)  Does the number exceed 3?

        3)  If the answer to #2 is “Yes,” you definitely have office politics.

Within this concept of politics you can play many different ways for many different goals.  Some tactics are unethical, others ethical.  Some goals are unethical, others ethical.  You must still use office politics as the vehicle to achieve your goals, because it’s the ultimate arena in which the necessary decisions and consensus will be made.

Most definitions of politics (or of any controversial topic, for that matter) reflect the moral outlook of the definer.  The American Heritage Dictionary, for example, describes a politician as “one who is interested in personal or partisan gain and other selfish interests” and politics as “partisan or factional intrigue within a given group.”  But the root word “politic, ” from Chambers Concise 20th Century Dictionary, means “in accordance with good policy:  acting or proceeding from motives of policy:  prudent: discreet.”


Consider these truisms about people and organizations:

  • People have principled disagreements about policy and direction of the organization.
  • People have different visions and goals.
  • People have different personal and selfish interests.
  • People have egos and like them recognized and stroked.
  • People have different personalities that others react to in different ways.
  • People remember past actions and behaviors.

There’s nothing very radical, nor inherently unprincipled or evil, in these statements; most people will easily acknowledge their truth:  that people don’t check their humanity at the door when they punch in on the time clock.


The second truism to consider is the concept of scarcity.  From the days of the pyramids to the present, every organization, company, or government has lived with the reality that there are far more desirable projects and activities than there are resources to manage them.  In other words, work is infinite but resources are finite.

Every time senior management gives you a dollar, or a person, or a week, it becomes a dollar, a person, or a week they can’t give to someone else for something that also has value.  (In financial terms, this is known as “opportunity cost.”)  That sets up an unavoidable competition, as we each strive to get the resources we need to accomplish our objectives, and the playing out of the informal competition is what we know as office politics.  And if our organization is under stress or financial challenge, the struggle gets that much worse.

It also gets worse when what’s at stake is competition for access to status, which is also a kind of limited resource.  For most people, when their personal status is at stake, the kid gloves come off.

Office Politics Defined  

This leads us to the following operational definition of politics:

Politics (\ˈpä-lə-ˌtiks\):  The informal and sometimes emotion-driven process of allocating limited resources and working out goals, decisions, and actions in an environment of people with different and competing interests and personalities.

This definition is intentionally neutral, as simply descriptive as we can make it.  It helps us understand what we’re about.  Here are the key points of this definition amplified:
  • informal and sometimes emotion-driven.  Office politics is separate from the formal organizational structure and involves human dynamics and emotions in addition to facts and reason.
  • allocating limited resources.  The ultimate outcome of office politics—and how success and failure are measured—is how the organization’s resources—time, money, people—are allocated.
  • working out goals, decisions, and actions.  The purpose of office politics is to work out goals, decisions, and actions that can turn into reality.  This often involves negotiation, compromise, and application of power.
  • different and competing interests and personalities.  People have different ideas and desires about what should be done, some based on reason and analysis, some based on emotion or personal agenda.  Personal likes and dislikes inevitably affect decisions.

There's no point in getting too wrapped up about the negative side of politics; it's inevitable wherever human beings gather together. Instead, it's better to learn how to play in a principled, positive, and above all effective manner.

Adapted from Enlightened Office Politics by Michael and Deborah Singer Dobson (AMACOM, 2001).


  1. please next time you are writing on politics try give the steps involved in ten ways. thanks

  2. Dear Anonymous,

    I'm not completely sure what you mean by "try give the steps involved in ten ways." Can you explain further?

    Also, the material I posted is a small excerpt of a large book on the subject. If you're interested in learning the entire process of office politics, click the words "Enlightened Office Politics" at the end of the blog post.

    Thanks very much for commenting.