The Ethical Use of Office Politics

by Steve Hansen, PCC

Political savvy is a vital competence for any executive, but the term “office politics” has received a bad rap. Political competence is the “ability to understand what you can and cannot control, when to take action, who is going to resist your agenda, and whom you need on your side. It’s about knowing how to map the political terrain and get others on your side, as well as lead coalitions,” according to Samuel Bacharach, author of Get Them on Your Side*.

It’s naive to suggest that all office politics are destructive and unethical. If you define politics in such a narrow and negative way, you overlook the value of political awareness and skill. If political astuteness is combined with the right values, it can be an advantage for you, your team and your organization.

Organizational politics are informal, unofficial, and sometimes behind-the-scenes efforts to sell ideas, influence an organization, increase power, or achieve other targeted objectives. Whether organizational politics are destructive or constructive is determined by two criteria:

  • That the targeted objectives reflect the company’s interests or merely one’s self-interest
  • That the influence efforts used to achieve these objectives have integrity

Political savvy and skill can help ethical, competent leaders, sell their ideas and influence others to benefit the organization.  There are several important reasons to acquire political savvy:

  • Ignoring its existence is akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. When political astuteness is combined with ethics and integrity, it can produce positive results for you, your team and your organization.
  • By avoiding or denying its existence, you underestimate how political behavior can destroy careers, a company’s reputation and overall performance.
  • If you define politics in only negative terms, you are naively under-political, which leaves you vulnerable to overly political, self-serving individuals.

You need high-integrity political tactics to play a better game. Non-manipulative tactics can help you harness the power of politics in a way that brings results. Political astuteness can be a character virtue and a company asset – if you learn to use it ethically. Political competence is a three-phase process:

Map Your Political Terrain

First, identify all stakeholders—anyone who has an interest in, or who would be affected by your idea. Creating coalitions is the most critical step in exercising your political competence.

Get Others on Your Side

Build your coalition—a politically mobilized group committed to implementing your idea because doing so will generate valued benefits. Through informal conversations, meetings and office drop-ins, you need to explain your position.

Make Things Happen

You must win others’ buy-in by making it clear there’s a payoff for supporting your effort and drawbacks for not joining your coalition. Coalition members can then use their networks to evangelize for you.

Mastering only certain parts of the three identified phases will not yield success. Politically competent leaders map the terrain, get people on their side by building a coalition and lead the coalition to achieve results

*Samuel B. Bacharach, director of Cornell University’s Institute for Workplace Studies, published Get Them on Your Side.

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To learn more about the ethical use of office politics and executive coaching, reach out to Steve for a consultation.