pol·i·tics noun

1. the complex or aggregate of relationships of people in society, esp those relationships involving authority or power.

2. any activity concerned with the acquisition of power, gaining one’s own ends, etc: company politics are frequently vicious.

– World English Dictionary

Let’s face it, we all have had to deal with office politics at some point in our career and for most of us we don’t hold fond memories of those occasions.  As the definitions above point out, politics is about the acquisition and use of power.  There is nothing inherently bad about politics.  In fact, there are both good and bad, constructive and destructive uses of politics. 

Good politics are when someone needs to work the system (e.g. culture, personalities, organizational silos) to achieve business objectives that are good for the company (e.g. bringing in new revenue, growth, profit, and satisfied customers). Bad politics are when someone works the same system to make themselves look good.  We tend to see those who are effective at using politics for good as effective networkers or good sales people.  We sometimes even refer to them as “good politicians.”  It is the dark side of politics that most of us are most familiar with. 

Let’s take a look at some of the most common bad actors in the world of office politics.  I have adapted these definitions from a piece on disruptiveleadership.com that I highly recommend.

The self-promoter.  These folks go out of their way to promote themselves under the auspices of promoting their business or product.  They frequently use “I” and “me” instead of “we” in their conversations, especially with senior management or other influential people both within and outside of the organization. The self-promoter is not beyond claiming credit for the work of others.

Several years ago I worked with a guy who fit this definition almost perfectly.  He came to the company with an impressive resume including having been president of an international professional society in his field.  Within a year or so he had applied for and won a prestigious award for outstanding accomplishments at our company.  Given his brief tenure this seemed strange to several of us who requested an investigation.  When the head of corporate security obtained a copy of the application for the award, we were all shocked to see that he had not only greatly exaggerated his own accomplishments but had claimed credit for several things that he had not been involved with in any way including one highly successful initiative that he had been quite vocal in opposing!  Needless to say, his tenure with the company came to an abrupt end.

The manager-upper.  Manager-uppers are masterful at managing their image in the eyes of their superiors. These people typically withhold negative information about their business to their bosses and selectively spin other things for the positive. They tell superiors what they think they want to hear, both positive and negative. Manager-uppers are masterful at using information as power. They may use confidential (or what they position as confidential) information about a part of the business they are involved in to enhance their own credibility.

Another of their favorite tricks is to “spring” things on others in meetings as a way of “getting the upper hand.” By catching colleagues off guard they both put them on the defensive and make themselves appear better prepared and informed.

I worked with one of these who was fond of introducing a subject and then saying that he couldn’t discuss it further because it was “highly confidential.”  His intent was, of course, to enhance his status as an “insider” by suggesting that he was somehow privy to information the rest of us were not.  He wasn’t very popular and this tactic ultimately backfired on him.

The kiss up artist.  These people actively network with the key movers and shakers in the company and use every opportunity to tell these them how great they are. They play very effectively to the oversized egos of many executives. One thing I quickly learned as I moved into senior management was to take all compliments with the proverbial “grain of salt.”  Beware of people who delight in telling you how great you are.

The propagandist.  Propaganda is defined as information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, or nation. Propagandist spread disinformation about potential “competitors” in the workplace. They quietly spread rumors and/or misinformation about someone that may threaten them career-wise, or against the business that person runs.  Their objective is to look good by destroying anyone they perceive as competition.

The most dangerous combination. Of all of these, the most dangerous combination of traits in a human being, in my opinion at least, is the combination of high intellect and low character.  These are the people who become dictators, despots and white collar criminals.  Bernie Madoff is probably one of the best examples in recent history.   What makes these folks so destructive is that their high intellect allows them to be very crafty and articulate while their weak character removes any traces of guilt for the damage they may cause.  Sadly, many politicians also fall into this category.

So how does one survive in the never-ending world of office politics?  Here are six suggestions.

  1. 1. Don’t paint a target on your back. Make sure that your own organization is in order.  Always focus on doing your job to the best of your ability all of the time.  Being faithful at your post, to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, is one of the best defenses against attack.  If you are not doing your job, plenty of others will be happy to point this out for their own gain.
  2. 2. Check your attitude daily. Stay positive and optimistic. Don’t become critical, negative or cynical. A positive attitude combined with doing your job well is a powerful combination.  When you are competent and positive people tend to not believe negative things said about you.
  3. 3. Refuse to go down to their level.  Misery loves company. Stay above the fray.  Don’t allow yourself to be dragged down to the level of the bad actors in your organization.  Political advisors frequently advise candidates for president to “look presidential” in the face of negative campaign ads.  Acting like a responsible adult while others are behaving childishly can be a powerful asset.
  4. 4. Follow the “Golden Rule.”  When dealing with others, especially difficult people, first ask yourself, “If I were them, what would I want me to do?”  There is a reason that every major religion in the world has some variation of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” in their teaching. It is simply good advice that always works.
  5. 5. Look for ways to help others.  Motivational expert Zig Ziglar is fond of telling his audiences, “You can have everything in life you want if you help others get what they want.”  One powerful way to be a positive force in office politics is to actively help others be successful. It is amazing what can be accomplished if you don’t worry about who gets the credit.  Don’t worry, people will notice.
  6. 6. Recognize and deal constructively with genuine pathology.  Leadership expert John C. Maxwell frequently points out that“ Hurting people hurt people.”  Sometimes we encounter individuals whose actions are the result of underlying psychiatric issues. Personality disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, all of these can lead to destructive behavior in the workplace.  Look for ways to help people who need help get it.  Many companies partner with organizations that specialize in dealing with these issues.  Don’t attempt to fix these yourself. Talk confidentially with Human Resources if you have concerns that a colleague may be ill.

Office politics will always be a part of organizational life.  You can’t control others but you can control yourself. The best way to survive and thrive is to take responsibility your own behavior.