What to Do About Office Politics

Office politics is the name we give to the negative and harmful maneuvering for position, power, status, favoritism or just plain love of the game-playing, which occurs to varying extents in many organizations across the country and around the world. Managing office politics is difficult to control because organizations are made up of employees with many different ideas, values, personalities and ability and willingness to cause mischief. Worse, employees who engage in office politics, whatever their goals, often do not face repercussions. Unfortunately, the cost to the organization in which office politics flourish can be extremely high, including low productivity, poor performance and the loss of good employees. Office politics might even lead to the complete breakdown and failure of the organization.

Peter Drucker so detested this phenomenon that he once gave office politics as his reason for avoiding his dean’s faculty meetings even though he and Dean Paul Albrecht were close friends sharing a common passion for executive education. Drucker stated his views at the very first class of executive PhD students held at the Faculty Club on the campus of Claremont Graduate School in Claremont. This was a team-taught course in which Drucker and Albrecht led the class together for nine PhD students. It was part of a controversial program intended to educate and prepare already-successful executives who possessed MBAs for the top rungs of management in their companies.

This course was intended as a no-holds-barred warm-up for the more rigorous courses to come. Though there was a written agenda, it was pretty loose. I don’t recall how the subject came up, but Drucker reacted at once to the subject of office politics, and he was uncharacteristically heated in his remarks. "Office politics can destroy any organization. You should avoid office politics completely," he said. And then Drucker added, "I do not attend Paul’s weekly management meetings for precisely this reason." We all awaited a response from Albrecht. As I recall, Albrecht said something to the effect of, "If you are Peter Drucker, you do not need to attend my faculty meetings."

In bringing Drucker to Claremont, Albrecht had won out over larger and then more prestigious graduate schools in the west that also wanted Drucker’s services when he retired from New York University in 1970. They had offered more money and other incentives but could not match the executive program that both Drucker and Albrecht envisioned. Now it was several years later and the executive MBA program was well-established. Drucker had a lot of clout regarding what he would and would not do, including in this new executive doctoral program. It might even have been in his contract that attending faculty meetings was optional. In any case, we knew exactly how he felt about office politics. Though he wrote little explicitly about office politics over my years as his student, afterwards I learned from him how to avoid and to manage office politics, a destructive phenomenon.

Two Perspectives of Office Politics

There are two perspectives from which a professional must view and manage office politics, and both require action, but of two different kinds. The first perspective of office politics is from that of an organizational member of a larger organization. That is, although a manager may be a supervisor, he or she is in a larger organization with other managers and thus is also in a universe subject to office politics over which he or she has little control. Yet, there is always one individual over whom every manager has control, and that is him or herself.

Recently I was in conversation with a well-known professional who knew Drucker. Some years ago, this man was in an organization that was rife with office politics that he could not control. It was beginning to affect his attitude toward his work and toward his co-workers and even, he thought, his ability to do his job. He explained the problem to Drucker and asked for his advice. Drucker responded, "The solution to your problem is simple but not always easy to carry out: Concentrate on your job, ignore the office politics and do not participate. Above all, just do your job."

Some years ago a young man at a private college advanced very rapidly within a very few years. Hired as an assistant professor, the lowest rank in the professorial chain, he was rapidly promoted to associate professor, and then to full professor. His obvious abilities led to his being offered the position of associate dean. In academia, administrative positions are on a separate track that does not compete with the academic track of professors, who are supposed to focus on such activities as research, publication, teaching and service. Professors are treated almost as independent entities with great freedom and latitude in their activities. Nevertheless, administration is important, and depending on the university, an associate dean, though sometimes viewed as a relative junior position, is considered a stepping stone to higher administrative posts such as dean, vice president, provost, president, etc. The dean in this case was an older gentleman who had actually helped the young professor in his career at this university.

Becoming associate dean changed the young man. For the first time he was in a position to affect the entire School of Business. Moreover, he hungered for the deanship, so much so that he began to "play office politics." He not only undercut potential competitors, he even began to talk behind the old dean’s back and emphasized to others any mistake the dean made. Finally, he even tried to convince other professors to go to the president to recommend that the old dean be removed from his office and that he be appointed dean in his stead. When these kinds of office politics are afoot, the manager has no option. The offending "politician" must be removed from office. The associate dean needed to be fired. But the dean did not act, and the employee who engaged in office politics managed to destroy the dean’s ability to lead. The president realized too late what was going on, and the dean was forced to retire. However, much to the associate dean’s surprise, the new dean was selected from one of the older professors, and he himself was moved to a staff position outside the school of business where he had minimum contact with faculty. He received no more promotions. To repeat Drucker’s answer to my friend’s query about office politics: "Above all, just do your job."

Office Politics From the Manager’s Perspective

If you are a manager, you cannot permit harmful office politics in your organization, and it is your responsibility to manage this. But managing office politics is not always so easy. There is a line between what is fair and good for the organization and what may be interpreted as overtures of favoritism. Let’s say an employee comes to you as his supervisor and asks for additional work. Is that office politics? If the individual is doing poorly in the tasks you have already assigned him, the answer is pretty easy. It’s not so easy to determine if it’s office politics if this individual is in fact doing an outstanding job in everything you have given him. Is it favoritism to comply with his request? Probably not, especially if any of those you supervise can do the same, and if deserving, have their requests granted. However, it is important that all know the latter and that your policies are clearly known in advance.

The example of the office politics of the associate dean was given from his perspective. But the harmful office politics that occurred might have been stopped by the university president, the dean’s boss, before things had gone so far. Or the office politics could have been stopped by the dean himself, who should have recognized much earlier that he had a growing problem due to the scheming of his subordinate administrator and that he must take action no matter how difficult or how much he preferred not to do so.

The best way for a leader to manage office politics is to make policies on such activities proactively clear and public. You can anticipate that some of your subordinates who are performing above average will seek additional work and responsibilities. Having clear policies as to promotion, selection for special jobs, additional work, etc. that everyone knows and understands will go a long way to heading off office politics and charges of favoritism before they get started. What if despite your best efforts, it is obvious the harmful office politics are in play? You need to stop them at once. Private one-on-one admonishment and public orders to your organization to cease and desist are your first lines of defense. However, if necessary, employees who practice office politics must be disciplined or even removed from the organization. They are that harmful and that destructive. Drucker was no theoretician. He recommended action. Take the action needed. Don’t let office politics destroy your organization.