One of the most common topics my coachees bring to our coaching conversations is organizational politics. They often tell me that they see it happening, but find it distasteful so they turn a blind eye. Some say that they don’t feel safe discussing politics in their organization. The reality is that workplace politics is common to most organizations. When people opt out, or pretend that it is not happening, they may be limiting their careers.
What is organizational politics? Jarrett defined it as follows: “…a variety of activities associated with the use of influence tactics to improve personal or organizational interests…”. A quick review of the literature offers more than 40 political actions, including some like networking and mentoring that are typically considered positive activities.
Women often have a particularly challenging time when it comes organizational politics. For example, research shows that women often feel that their work should speak for itself. (That was my attitude early in my own career, by the way.) But that’s not how organizations tend to work. As further examples, a recent study, “Women in the Workplace”, by LeanIn Org and McKinsey & Co found many relevant factors such as men feel that they are more “in the know” than women and women are being passed over for promotions.
So, what are some tips for managing organizational politics? First, I always suggest becoming informed, including recognizing that there are both positive and negative political actions. Then, look at what is happening in the workplace through a political lens, such as what gets on a meeting agenda, who goes together for lunch, etc. With a better understanding of organizational politics, then, consider a wide range of political activities, and select some to try. (Not all options will appeal to everyone.)
The sooner that one recognizes the need to understand and effectively use organizational politics, the better. While much has been written about the “glass ceiling”, the 2023 “Women in the Workplace” study found for the ninth consecutive year, that the “broken rung” is the greatest obstacle that women face on the path to senior leadership. The “broken rung” is the critical first step to becoming a manager and as a result of it, women fall behind and can’t catch up.
Ready to get started? The reference section below provides some initial possibilities for related reading. Pfeffer’s book was particularly eye-opening for me when I started learning about this – and that book is still very relevant today.
Ferris, G., Frink, D., Galang, M, Zhou, J., Kacmar, K., Howard, J. (1996). Perceptions of organizational politics: Prediction, stress-related implications, and outcomes, Human Relations, 49(2), 233–266.
Ferris, G., Russ, G., & Fandt, P. (1989) Politics in organizations, In R.A. Giacalone & P. Rosenfeld (eds.), Impression management in the organization, Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 143-170.
Field, E., Krivkovich, A., Kügele, S., Robinson, N. & Yee, L. (2023). Women in the workplace, 2023. Retrieved Oct. 10, 2023 from https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/women-in-the-workplace#/
Gandz, J. & Murray, V. (1980). The experience of workplace politics, Academy of Management Journal, 23(2), 237–251.
Jarrett, M. (2017). The 4 Types of organizational politics. Harvard Business Review.
Pfeffer, J. (1992). Managing with power: Politics and influence in organizations. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
© Dr. Karen Somerville, PhD, C. Dir., MBA, CPA, CGA, CEC
Karen has more than 25 years of experience as a leader and has worked in all three sectors – the private sector, the public sector and the non-profit sector. She has served on many boards of directors throughout her adult life. Karen holds a PhD in Management, an MBA, a Chartered Director designation, a Certified Executive Coach (CEC) designation and CPA/CGA designations. She is also a CTT Certified Consultant, qualified to use the cultural transformation tools available from the Barrett Values Centre, a global leader in values and culture. Karen is the President of Performance Plus Group: www.performanceplusgroup.com .