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Surviving office politics

Karen Higginbottom

Politics play a significant role in every public organisation, but how skilled are you as a manager when it comes to politics in the office? Karen Higginbottom discusses how managers can thrive as political players in an organisation as well as strategies for managing the politics that exist within their own teams

Politics. Just the mere word evokes images of politicians haranguing each other at Prime Minister’s Question Time and making deals in the corridors of Westminster. Even if you hate the very nature of the term ‘office politics’ and believe you’re just there to keep your head down and deliver, unfortunately, you cannot avoid it, you need to get involved at some level. 


Office politics is an unavoidable fact of life for managers in the workplace, comments Professor Cary Cooper, professor of organizational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School. “Office politics is about trying to achieve your own personal objectives in the context of your work but that doesn’t mean that a manager has to act in a negative manner,” he says. “If managers aren’t skilled at office politics, then they won’t achieve their personal career objectives.”

Being politically astute is a useful part of a manager’s survival toolkit, remarks Gary Miles, director of international operations at leadership Institute, Roffey Park. “Your first port of call as a manager is to identify the key players in your organisation and their interests. Then you need to have your ear to the ground and network with as many people as possible. Finally identify what sources of power are available to you personally and take notice of people who have noticed you in the company and leverage that.”

Unfortunately, office politics is often associated with connotations of intrigue and favouritism by female managers, says Dr Wichert, senior psychologist, Kenexa High Performance Institute, an IBM company. “But political networking for both men and women is one of the top drivers for getting promotion.”

A Kenexa report ‘Enabling women’s career progression’ looked at the importance of politically skilled networking. For women, this politically skilled networking was the second most important factor in helping women gain an actual promotion, accounting for 18% of the difference between being promoted and not promoted. 

Managers can also develop strategies for managing the politics that can arise within their own teams, suggests Professor Cooper. “Every time your team achieves a success, make sure that senior management knows about it as nothing builds a team spirit and avoids internal tension than recognised success. It’s about finding a way of promoting your team.” However, managers need to be wary about the promises they make to members of their team, added Cooper. “Don’t promise any member of your staff something they can’t deliver or promise the same job or opportunity to more than one member of staff.  That is deadly. Managers need to be socially skilled and find out what their team members expect and want from their career.”

One of the most important aspects of a manager’s role is to secure resources for their teams which requires the ability to be politically savvy, remarks Dr Wichert. “The knowledge of how to play the system is quite important for managers and their teams especially in a large organisation with a matrix reporting line and a scarcity of resources. Office politics is part of what a manager does in terms of positioning the team and getting the resources.”

Office politics has negative connotations but it can have a positive impact on the manager’s career and their team, argues Cooper. “You can bring self-confidence to the team by promoting them to senior management and as a manager, you can find out where relationships aren’t so good and then try and stop them getting worse.  We need socially and inter-personally skilled managers more than ever due to job insecurity in the current economic climate.”

Top tips to manage office politics within your team:

  • Know your staff, the names of their spouse/partner and children and any ill-health issues they may have and make sure you enquire about this from time to time. Building a relationship of trust requires you understand the person and the personal life of all  your team members
  • Create an open door but confidential policy where each member of your staff knows that they can talk to you about any work or non-work issue and that it will remain confidential
  • Mix with the staff, walk the talk as  much as you can, because only then can you see the problems that might or have emerged among the staff
  • Back your team with senior management or other groups they are likely to come into conflict with.
  • Remember always to let an individual and the team know when they have done a great job; manage by praise and not by fault-finding

Source: Professor Cary Cooper, Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health, Lancaster University Management School


  • Melanie Read

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  • Melanie Read

    This is a very insightful article

  • Melanie Read

    This is a very useful article, thanks.

  • Melanie Read

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  • Melanie Read

    Great article!

  • Anusha Everson

    Great recommendations. Thank you for sharing. I've been at the receiving and practising sides of several of these...they make a difference to job satisfaction/work it as the boss or an employee.

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