Office Politics, Reconsidered

I’ve written before about handling national politics in the workplace. Today I want to talk about office politics more specifically, which is a different topic because you’re discussing the politics of how work is done in the office.

Why Office Politics Exist

Why do office politics exist in the first place? After all, the goals of a business are pretty straightforward: produce quality products and services in an efficient and legal manner so that the company makes money. What could there be to argue about?

The reason there are politics–points of contention and negotiation–in the workplace is that different people have different ways of achieving the goals stated above. From those differing approaches can come differences of opinion. Differences of opinion can arise in the workplace over any of the following:

  • How decisions are made
  • Which organizations or activities should receive a piece of the budget and how much
  • How individuals and teams should be led
  • How large teams should be
  • Who should be in charge of a cross-discipline (or cross-department) project
  • Who should get credit for X accomplishment
  • Who should be blamed for X failure
  • How much autonomy employees should have to pursue their individual tasks
  • Which practices need to be changed
  • Whether another company should be acquired
  • Which or whose work should be done first
  • Whether the company should accept a buyout or merger with another organization
  • How much work should be subcontracted to an outside organization
  • Whose bright idea should be used to solve problem X?

And so forth. You will note that there are not a lot of conflicts over the work itself. Most times, when instructions or processes for an organization’s core business are laid out, those activities are straightforward. Such activities can be broken down into right or wrong. Also, there is usually a hierarchy of authority that determines who can give orders or make requests of others.

Political arguments arise because of differences between people, and people can be self-serving, altruistic, power-hungry, power-averse, independent, prone to following others, and downright ornery. They can also have different priorities and expectations. Some individuals are concerned about cost above all else. Others are interested in technical perfection. Others are interested in expanding their part of the organization (“empire building”). Some leaders are focused on following the rules while others have a strong inclination to let others “think outside of the box.” All of these attitudes and more can lead to disagreements about how or why things should be done and when.

What You Need to Do in Response to Office Politics

What does this mean for you as a technical communicator? It means you need to be mindful of other people’s behavior and agendas when you’re doing your job. As I discovered in one organization, simply focusing on the job above all things was, itself, a breach of office politics. Why? Because I would have preferred to stay at my desk and write rather than attend a team meeting with a higher-level manager. That senior manager was interested in “face time,”* which is to say having her entire team present for and included in meetings. She liked to see her people together. And since she had a rank higher than me or my immediate supervisor, her wishes overrode mine. That, too, is politics.

(* In this context, “face time” does not mean the video app on your phone; instead it means time spent where your manager can see your face and have a conversation with you if s/he so chooses.)

It can take a while to understand an organization’s priorities and politics–not just the formal rules and chain of command but how peer organizations and leaders relate to each other, how they compete for resources, how they resolve differences, and what sorts of behavior are accepted as normal vs. those that are not.

As you are learning the objective requirements of your job, you also need to learn how your job affects other people; how your behavior affects other people; how different people get their jobs done; and how you can best work with the people around you to get your job done successfully. Along the way, you might discover other people you want to work with (or for), other jobs you’d like to do, or ways you can increase your likelihood for a promotion or a raise.

All this amounts to is listening to how other people talk and how other people behave. What words are they using to describe their work and others’? What priorities do they focus on at every meeting? What are their most common complaints? What behaviors by others make them happiest? Observing the social behaviors around you then leads to the next challenge: how do you behave to get what you want?

For example: maybe you’re like my 30-year-old self and are more interested in writing than attending meetings. Reading the politics in your workplace, you might have to accommodate leaders’ demands for “face time” by attending meetings without raising a fuss or arguing about your desire to get writing done. The less time you spend arguing about that issue, the faster you can get to the meeting and get it over with so you can go back to doing what you’re doing. And while I’m on the topic of meetings, you might in fact learn something at a meeting that could affect the “politics” of your job, such as a new set of priorities, a  company reorganization, or the departure of a particular peer or leader.

Bottom line: You will have your own agenda, just like the people around you. The better you can understand and work with (or around) those agendas, the more easily you’ll be able to achieve your own goals. You might think you’ve got an idea or a priority that is “not political.” However, go back and review that list of potential points of conflict. If there is more than one way to interpret or do something you want done, you will need to consider office politics, and the better you understand them, the better you can succeed at what you wish to do.

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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