Nutshell: Be more owl: how to make office politics a force for good

Written by
Future Talent Learning

05 Oct 2020

05 Oct 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

To boost our influence at work, we need to reframe what we think about office politics and find ways to engage in positive ways for the general good.

If we’re honest, most of us love to occupy the moral high ground from time to time, to stand above the struggle. That’s how many of us might feel about office politics. We say things like we don’t “do” politics at work, that we’d rather not get involved in what’s often seen as slightly grubby and unpleasant. Not for us the playing games, backstabbing, sucking up and behind-the-scenes meetings and alliances. Office politics has a bad press and it’s unsurprising that we can feel nervous about getting involved. Better to sit on the side lines and let others scramble around in the mud.

The trouble is that, as Plato reminds us, “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors”. If we think we can sit out politics at work, we’re wrong. Trying to take that moral high ground is as much a statement as extreme forms of politicking that seek to undermine or obstruct – and can be just as bad for us personally and for our teams and organisations.

Reframing office politics

For Ann McKee, writing in Harvard Business Review, being a member of any organisation is, in itself, a political act, whether we like it or not. To get things done at work, we need influence, especially when we work in environments where enabling and assessing contribution and performance is a lot more complex than simply counting widgets. And influence, of course, means having power. In positive cultures, that power is used for good, influencing by building connection and relationships and inspiring people with our vision. But it’s also easy to see how it can be used in less ethical ways.

That doesn’t mean that we can, or should, withdraw and leave the field to the power-grabbing, self-interested egoists. If, according to McKee, office politics is simply “the art of influencing others so we can get stuff done at work”, it doesn’t have to be the unique preserve of the seedy and self-serving. Rather, it’s about positive coalition-building and transparency, boosting our influence to make the most of ourselves and our teams in positive ways.

Linda Hill and Kent Lineback, authors of Being the Boss, argue that leaders should stop avoiding office politics. They remind us that people who actively steer clear of politics not only limit the influence they have beyond their immediate group; they’re also in danger of abdicating their responsibilities as leaders. Being the boss with no organisational clout or credibility can be frustrating and demotivating for everyone involved.

Ducking office politics means that we’re less likely to do what good leaders need to do: build strong, positive relationships that serve a purpose, relationships that McKee calls resonant. Resonant relationships are grounded in empathy, authenticity and mutual respect. They’re based on knowing what drives people so that we can inspire, motivate and influence in line with those people’s values.

People who opt out may miss out on this, or find it harder, as well as losing out on receiving valuable help and mutual support themselves. McKee quotes Rob Asghar, who, writing for Forbes, argues that office politics is simply “the art of getting along with others and of putting yourself in positions where your work will be noticed”.

For Hill and Lineback, the best way to deal with office politics is to engage with it, to turn towards it. It’s about creating, and sustaining, active, ongoing relationships, taking part in positive ways for the right reasons. If we don’t currently have the influence we’d like or are struggling to be heard, we may need to rethink how we deal with the political environment where we work.

When office politics turns bad

That’s all very well, we might say. But what about less benign organisations characterised by competing interests and in-fighting and peopled by passive-aggressives or bullies who make it personal, pick fights and try to intimidate others?

Oliver James, author of Office Politics, identifies a “dark triad” of character traits that – in extremis – give office politics a bad name:

Psychopathy: psychopaths may have superficial charm, but, underneath that veneer, they are aggressive, callous and lack remorse and empathy.

Machiavellianism: Machiavellians overtly manipulate and exploit people to benefit themselves. They have a cynical disregard for morality and engage in deception more often than truth.

Narcissism: narcissists have a grandiose self-view, sense of entitlement and complete self-absorption.  They use ingratiating tactics and phony compliments to get what they want.

Some people, “triadic individuals” according to James, are even an unholy combination of all three.

The paradox is that, on first glance, employees with the dark triadic traits can appear to be highly desirable. They exude charm, confidence and assertiveness, and can make a great first impression – which might explain why people with these traits tend to be over-represented in senior leadership roles. They are also more likely to be men than women.

In fact, as James suggests, the study of office politics shows that workplaces can be a jungle of awkward personalities jockeying for position. If we’re to avoid getting lost in that jungle, we need to identify and understand what kind of people we’re dealing with and to build our own political skills to counter the impact they might be having.

Friends and enemies

Academics Simon Baddeley and Kim James offer a more playful way to distinguish between the more devious game-playing we often associate with office politics and a political awareness that’s underpinned by positivity and integrity. It’s a model that can help us to identify people’s motivations: are they self-interested or looking to the greater good of the organisation? And how politically aware or unaware are they?

Innocent sheep

The non-political but principled employees who work hard, rarely network and back the hierarchy are sheep.

The sheep approach is based on innocence. They are suspicious of politics and want everything to work out well for all concerned. They are often oblivious to the politics around them and, because they fail to understand group power dynamics, have limited influence and power.

Likely to say:

“Could we get on with the main task of this meeting?”

“Well, in strict hierarchical terms, I think it is X’s decision.”

Inept donkeys

Game-playing but rather inept colleagues who like to think they’re power players but are often outmanoeuvred are donkeys.

Like sheep, they are politically inept, but they lack their integrity. They might be determined to get what they want, but, because they aren’t politically astute, they don’t take into account established political power bases when trying to achieve something. This often means that they have a reputation for saying or doing things that embarrass or upset others. For these reasons, they might also lack team support and are vulnerable to being taken advantage of by people who are more astute or shrewd.

Likely to say:

“Well, we all know how he got the job, don’t we?”

“You know me; I’ll just have to tell them they can’t have it.”

Clever foxes

Game-players who are unprincipled, self-promoting, sly and clever are foxes.

Foxes are politically astute but they use this intelligence for their own gain. They are good at forming coalitions and winning support for their ideas. They are excellent at manipulating situations so that they are never at fault; they are also unprincipled enough to exploit a weakness in others to get what they want.

Likely to say:

“Leave it to me, I will have a private word with them.”

“I think it would be unwise for me to take this on”

Wise owls

Occupying the most desirable upper-right-hand quadrant of the 2x2 matrix are the wise, aware, well-networked and accountable owls.

Owls understand the politics of the organisation, but their ethics make them use this political awareness for the benefit of the organisation as well as themselves. Their excellent interpersonal skills help them to build and nurture relationships. They like to create win-win scenarios and, unlike foxes, they are not afraid to share their emotions and show vulnerability. They are transparent and willing to openly share information where appropriate.

Likely to say:

“Let me repeat what you are asking for back to you, so I can make sure I understand you correctly.”

“Let’s look at ways we can progress this project and overcome some of the obstacles.”

The Baddeley and James framework helps us identify these types (or people with some of these tendencies) and to plan how we might best influence them. We might need to feed a fox’s ego by giving them something; if we have a big change project coming up, getting an owl on board might give us a valuable ally; with sheep, we’ll need to be clear about the direction of travel and that it’s in everyone’s best interests.

As for ourselves, the message is clear: leaders need good political skills to succeed. But this doesn’t mean compromising personal integrity.

How to be more owl

If we want to use political awareness in positive and sustainable ways, we need to work on being more owl. Oliver James identifies four key characteristics we need to acquire if we’re to master office politics in this way:

Astuteness: being able to read other people, ourselves and the organisation we’re in.

That means being an observer, looking out for patterns of behaviour and body language that might suggest a mismatch between what’s being said and what’s meant.

It also means being self-aware, able to read our own emotions, understand what might trigger us to behave in certain ways (especially when under pressure) and think about our impact on other people.

Then we also need to scan and read our organisations – and keep doing so. Who really has the influence and power? Who holds little formal power but has lots of authority? Who does everyone seem to listen to? Who is being ignored? What do people in power like and dislike? Questions like these not only help us to identify potential allies but also give us wider social awareness about how we can best contribute and be recognised.

Effectiveness: how we use astuteness to choose which tactics or strategies to employ depending on the people involved, and the context.

We have to stay true to ourselves and our values, but also be prepared to flex our approach when necessary. As we’ve seen, interactions with clever foxes will need a different approach to those with donkeys and sheep. Much also depends on our own specific contexts and cultures – another reason to keep up to date with our organisation scanning.

Networking: get out there and meet people outside your organisation.

Successful politics revolve around building relationships and networking. We need to connect with people without expecting anything in return; to be interested and build bridges and connections with and between others; to be intentional and strategic about who we approach, building a network that remains relevant and is dynamic as our experience and needs change. And we can’t just connect with people we like or are like us; we need to range more widely.

Sincerity: mean what we say and do what we say.

Without people at least thinking we’re sincere, we haven’t got a hope. James believes that we can achieve the right balance of authenticity and flexibility through our actions. We need to know who we are and what’s important to us and act accordingly, no matter what others do.

In office politics terms, that means avoiding at all costs toxic watercooler chats about issues and challenges rather that talking directly to the person concerned. Or making disagreements personal or letting them become personal. We don’t need to be best friends with everyone at work, nor should we be afraid to speak up, but we can do so in ways that still respects the other person.

James also believes that being a force for good and fairness at work is good for our emotional health. The right political awareness helps us to live in the present rather than being detached; to be alert and listen to what others have to say; to assert ourselves when needed; to develop self-knowledge and insight; to be positive, and to feel that we can be playful as well as deadly serious all the time.

Political influence at work can be a tricky balancing act. It can be hard to navigate the factors at play, and all too easy to go too far or to misread the room. That’s why it’s important to understand what’s at stake and how to position ourselves to develop political awareness to do things correctly and fairly in the interest of the group and our overall vision.

People who play politics just to pursue their self-interest often create blind spots for themselves, tuning out essential information that does not serve their agenda. It’s this kind of behaviour, where people come across as uncaring, insensitive and self-serving, that gives office politics its lousy reputation. But, longer term, it’s hard for these foxes to build the real influence that underpins true political awareness.

An avowed disinterest in office politics can also be a liability. A lack of political astuteness can mean that our attempts at influence can be misdirected or inept – and, therefore, backfire or simply not work. There are many talented people who don’t progress as they should because they haven’t acknowledged that office politics is an important fact of working life and taken the time and effort to get better at it.

Rather than avoiding politics, we should take part in positive ways for good ends; they’re much too important to be left to the Machiavellians and the narcissists. If we can both be politically savvy and act with integrity and positive intent, then we can build the relationships we need to help us, and our organisations, to improve and succeed. In short, political awareness can be a real force for good.

Perhaps that doesn’t sound too grubby after all.


Test your knowledge

  • Identify two reasons why we should engage with office politics.
  • Outline the difference between an inept donkey and a clever fox according to the Baddeley and James framework.

What does it mean for you?

  • Reflect on your own approach to office politics using Oliver James’s four keys to office politics mastery as a guide. Where are you currently strong, and where might you need to improve? What could you do to develop your practice?


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