How Can My Leaders Navigate Organizational Politics?

There are numerous sources of conflict in organizations, and one of the initiators is organizational politics. Organizational politics can cause other sources of conflict that include interpersonal conflict, intragroup conflict, and manager conflict. Organizational politics is a fact of life, so it is essential to develop the skills to navigate them. Politics can be an element of the organizational culture or within one or two departments. Your leaders need the skills to manage the politics at any level, whether the behaviors are typical of one or more peers within certain departments or divisions or the manager or supervisor’s staff.  

Self-Interests vs. Mutual Interests 

There are many definitions of organizational politics. It creates a tug-of-war between self-interest or mutuality of interest for organizational effectiveness. Mutuality of interest balances individual and organizational interests through win-win cooperation. A Robert Half survey found that 65 percent of workers said participating in workplace politics is necessary to get ahead.  

Organizational scholar Michael L. Tushman long ago defined organizational politics “as the structure and process of the use of authority and power to affect the definition of goals, directions, and the other major parameters of the organization. Decisions are not made in a rational or formal way but rather through compromise accommodation and bargaining.” Though the terms accommodation and bargaining seem reasonable, the key aspect of organizational politics is that a person uses their authority to get what they want personally and not necessarily what is good for the organization, coworkers, or employees. People (leaders or employees) act to further their self-interests. 

Organizational Politics and Employee Engagement  

Research published in Frontiers in Psychology investigated the relationship between perceived organizational politics, employee engagement, and employee stress. Extensive research in the past has established the relationship between perceived organizational politics and stress. This new research looked at the relationship of organizational politics on employee engagement and whether work meaningfulness mediates the negative influence of politics.  

The researchers found that politics indirectly negatively impacts employee engagement because politics adds work stress and hinders work meaningfulness. “The results demonstrate that the negative use and abuse of relationships, communication channels, resources, reputation, and decision-making, all adversely impact employees’ perceptions that the work they do is meaningful and that through their work they make a meaningful contribution.” Politics has an indirect negative impact on employee engagement because politics adds work stress and hinders work meaningfulness. Organizational politics become part of the employee experience and not in a good way. 

Politics indirectly negatively impacts employee engagement because it increases work stress, while hindering work meaningfulness.

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Typical Behaviors Causing Conflict  

Organizational politics can cause a lot of conflict, especially for your leaders or their employees who must work within an organizational structure and its processes in the face of what may be irrational decision-making. Some of the behaviors of people using organizational politics and creating conflict are:  

  • Controlling the distribution or sharing of important information to retain power 
  • Controlling resources in a way that benefits the person and their department/division 
  • Fully controlling meeting agendas rather than getting input and designing the agenda so that only topics of interest to the person are discussed, or topics they want to be avoided are not discussed. 
  • Controlling lines of communication, such as preventing employees from reaching a particular manager to discuss a problem in a one-on-one meeting or cherry-picking who gets what information 
  • Using influence in decision-making to support self-interests 
  • Game playing by doing things like never getting around to answering important questions or handling situations, or finding ways to avoid attending critical meetings where decisions might be made that go against the person’s self-interests 
  • Building and using relationships with the “right people” by doing things like promising support for something in exchange for getting support 
  • Manipulating, criticizing, disrespecting, and undermining others 
  • Bypassing proper channels to get special favors 
managing conflict

A Culture of Politics

At the organizational level, politics play a major role in operational efficiency and effectiveness. A culture of politics can:  

  • Impede how well units work together 
  • Increase the number of grievances filed when people feel undermined 
  • Harm efforts to make all employees feel included and have a sense of belonging 
  • Silence employee voice 
  • Hurt trust between employees and managers, and between managers 
  • Make it more difficult to get the buy-in of shared goals 
  • Damage interpersonal relationships 
  • Promote a lack of ethics 
  • Lead to less than ideal decision-making 
  • Slow down problem-solving 
  • Make it more difficult for leaders to work together  

Organizational politics creates a lot of negativity which can lead to a toxic culture if pervasive enough and left unchecked. It can cause intense resentfulness among employees because company resources are unfairly distributed, including rewards and recognition 

Some experts note that organizational politics can positively impact if the politics lead to positive change, i.e., allowing a manager to gain support for needed changes that advance the organization. It can promote some competition that leads to new ideas or innovation or lead to a stronger effort to succeed. It’s a matter of balance, though, because office politics can lead to unproductive rivalries, and it’s very difficult to maintain the balance. People willing to participate in organizational politics are eager to pursue self-interest, remember.  

Tips for Navigating Organizational Politics 

Your leaders must navigate organizational politics because some degree of politics is a reality in every business. Ideally, senior leaders recognize organizational politics and take steps to minimize it, while also being equipped with the skills they need to resolve conflict. For example, your top leaders can reemphasize a culture of ethics and transparency and develop goals that everyone in the organization shares.  

However, your leaders at every level should utilize the same effective strategies plus others. Organizational politics can lead to “turf wars,” and that may have severe consequences, including making it more challenging to stay union-free because people perceive they have no voice. Your leaders should support shared organizational goalsdevelop smarter goals within their area of responsibility and employ the following behaviors.  

Transparency   

Maintaining open communication is one of the best strategies for overcoming organizational politics. Your leaders should be honest, truthful, and transparent with other leaders and with employees. Senior leaders should be transparent about major organizational decisions. Lower-level managers and supervisors should be transparent with employees about the reasons for decisions or actions taken at the top or within their work unit. When people know the rationale for decisions, the people who thrive on office politics lose some of their power. Also, provide equal access to information, something digital communication makes easy. When managers or supervisors play favorites and exclude some employees from access to information, employee engagement is hurt.  

Talk to Your Employees and Actively Listen 

Increase awareness of the sources of conflict by talking to your employees.  

Ask your employees about their perceptions of office politics. You can administer employee surveys to get honest answers because a survey can offer anonymity. Maintain an open-door policy, too, while soliciting feedback to encourage employees to talk to you about their concerns.  

Sometimes, your manager or supervisor needs to call a meeting to pinpoint the person or persons who are causing the conflict through organizational politics. Once the employees who play politics are known, managers and supervisors can have private conversations with each one. Your leaders need active listening skills, which means listening to what people say and playing back what was heard. This helps to avoid misunderstanding or lack of understanding of the real issues.  

organizational politics

Always Maintain Ethical Behavior and Be a Role Model 

Employees want fair treatment. Leaders should apply the same rules to all employees and to their own behaviors. If a supervisor plays office politics, their employees are more likely to follow suit. Using politics for personal gain is not ethical behavior and establishes a leader as a poor role model. Politics includes giving an employee favored treatment because the employee is most able to advance the supervisor’s self-interests. It’s a domino effect and an easy one to get started.  

Develop Employee Trust through Positive Employee Relations  

Building employee trust in decision-making is related to transparency, communication, and maintaining ethics. It goes further, though. Building employee trust requires making fair decisions, helping employees achieve personal and work goals, and making a fair allocation of resources. You need to develop strong positive employee personal relations and train employees on organizational values, collaboration, and shared goals. Lead with emotional intelligence and compassion. It’s all the effective leadership behaviors that together build employee trust.  

Building employee #trust requires making fair decisions, helping employees achieve personal and work #goals, and making a fair allocation of resources. #buildingtrust

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Manage Change  

Organizational politics can be within or between departments, divisions, and functions or throughout the entire organization. It’s most likely to become a serious problem during times of organizational change, when resources are scarce and drive competition among people or groups of people, or when making tough decisionsManaging change in a way that minimizes organizational politics means using leadership skills like promoting collaboration, maintaining quality communication, and giving and getting feedback. It’s essential that attempts at organizational politics be addressed and not tolerated.  

Develop Strategies for Addressing Politics of Other Leaders 

Often, organizational politics is at the leadership level and not at the staff level, making it difficult for managers and supervisors who don’t play politics to reach goals requiring inter-unit cooperation. Following are a few tips for a leader who wants to overcome organizational politics to ensure their staff gets fair opportunities. 

  • Learn to negotiate by developing a solution acceptable to the other person by considering different ways to distribute or share resources 
  • Focus on interests and not demands 
  • Don’t become a participant in politics. 
  • Focus on the problem and the facts and not the people 
  • Create new options for joint gain 
  • Focus on what is fair 
  • Persuade by using logical arguments and facts to state 

Times of major organizational change are when organizational politics become more prevalent. Good examples include decisions like restructuring, plant or facility closings, and layoffs. One of the best strategies for minimizing organizational politics is, once again, transparency. Your leaders can identify clear criteria for decisions made, communicate the criteria to employees and keep lines of communication open. Major changes are planned changes, making it easier to anticipate politics and resistance.   

Developing Authentic Leaders 

Organizational politics are complicated, but not impossible, to overcome. To navigate the politics, though, requires skilled leaders who understand how to recognize and address the situation for the benefit of their employees and their personal success. Leadership training and employee training offered by Projections, Inc., along with management consulting provided by IRI, can help develop the skills needed to keep organizational politics at an acceptable level. When organizational politics run amok, you need skilled, authentic leaders who can restore trust and positive employee relations at every level.  

About the Author Jennifer Orechwa

With over 25 years in the industry, and now as IRI's Director of Business Development, Jennifer has gained a unique perspective on what it takes to build a culture of engagement. By blending a deep understanding of labor and employee relations with powerful digital marketing knowledge, Jennifer has helped thousands of companies achieve behavioral change at a cultural level.

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