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Office Politics with Honour

by Peter de Jager
in Community Development, Human Resources, Magazine

Most people respond to the topic of office politics with a monologue that goes something like this: “I hate office politics! It is a synonym for gossip, hearsay, badmouthing, backstabbing, lying, cheating, etc. There are better things to do that are much more conducive to a healthy culture. Office politics is a time waster – I just wish I could be left alone to do my job!

If that sounds familiar, then you’re a card carrying member of a very large group. Welcome to the OP haters of the world.

Office politics permeates most work environments, and we nearly all agree that it does get in the way of what we’re supposed to be doing. Office politics can poison work environments to the point where we don’t want to participate in the pervasive “process” – this negatively affects productivity. We cannot contribute when we’re focused on disengaging from how the organization operates.

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My guess is that you nodded your head in complete agreement as you read the opening paragraphs. So far so good. Now we need to examine what’s going on, to determine if we can exert any control over OP.

Deconstructing OP

“Office politics” is a label we’ve attached to a certain category of human behaviour. Once we attach a label to something, we’re now able to refer to that “thing” without really having to understand what it is. That’s what labels often do – they stop us from “thinking.” It’s useful, from time to time, to strip away the label and just describe the thing we’re talking about.

Here’s an example. “Office politics” is the label we’ve attached to “how people interact in the office environment.” So, let’s look at one of the earlier quotes. Instead of “OP is a time waster – I just wish I could be left alone to do my job!” consider the following: “How people interact in the office environment is a time waster – I just wish I could be left alone to do my job!”

That’s a silly perspective. If we work in an office, then we MUST interact with other people. Interaction is not a time waster – it’s what we do when we come in contact with each other. Interaction is vital to all human endeavour. There is really no choice here. We MUST interact. We can’t hide. We can’t disengage. What we must do, and what we CAN do, is learn how to interact in a manner that is more conducive to achieving our goals.

The first step is to actually look at the interactions in an office. Who works with whom? Who likes whom? Who socializes with whom? Who dislikes whom? What cliques exist? Who exerts influence over others? Etc. We can do this inside our heads, but sometimes it’s useful to actually map it out. If you want to see a sample of what such a diagram might look like, scan the code, or head to .

Whether or not you decide to draw diagrams, the questions above are vital. The answers not only provide a clue as to what’s happening in your office, but also how they got that way.

Getting Along

We’ve defined OP as how people interact in the office. We can shorten that even further. OP is all about how we interact. And, we’re all experts in that, or at least we should be if we apply what we know to the world around us. Here are six things to do and six things to avoid doing, if our goal is to interact amicably with those around us. They overlap a lot – and the “we” I keep referring to includes yourself.

The “do not” list:

1.    Don’t belittle people – we resent that.

2.    Don’t gossip – we don’t like being talked about behind our backs.

3.    Don’t lie – we learn very quickly to not trust those who do.

4.    Don’t steal credit for other people’s work – we really resent that.

5.    Don’t complain – we prefer to associate with those who are positive.

6.    Don’t take things personally – we operate better when we keep our emotions in check.

On the flip side?

1.    Do praise others for work well done – we revel in recognition.

2.    Do include others in your successes – we never really achieve anything in solitude.

3.    Do keep your word – we learn slowly, but we do learn, whom to trust.

4.    Do seek out help from those who can help – we all appreciate being useful and of value.

5.    Do count to 10 before losing your cool (count very slowly … one number a week is fine) – we work better with those who are under control.

6.    Do maintain a sense of humour – we’re here for a short time – make it a fun time.

Is this all there is to office politics? Of course not. For starters, there are several hundred books we could (and should) read on the subject of human interactions. But, the above common sense rules are a pretty good start. Think back to your most odious example of a politically-charged office environment – now inject the above “rules/guidelines” into the mix. Now what would it look like? A little better? A lot better? A place where you’d like to work?

Office politics can get nasty. People can interact as if the drama in the office were a matter of life or death. There are even sociopaths hiding in suits. But, office politics isn’t something mysterious – it’s just how people interact. There are no secrets. We know how to cooperate, work together, play together. We just have to do that. Is it difficult to get from where we are to where we need to be? Yes, … but, when we know where we’re going – and we’re given some simple steps that enable us to move forward, albeit slowly – then the problem becomes one of will and determination.  MW

Peter de Jager believes that most problems – when examined closely – are people problems. And, as a “people,” he’s confident we can solve the problems we help create. He speaks for a living. You can contact him at .

as published in Municipal World, November 2011

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