There's A Right Way To Play Office Politics

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When you're dealing with people in an office, there's no way around it: things are going to get political.
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Skirting office politics is for fools.

Business psychology professor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic says there's no way around it: when you've got people, you've got politics. Humans, he says, are inherently emotional creatures and "office politics" is really just another name for human psychology.

"Maybe in a hundred years or 20 years, robots will take over for us, and they'll be less political, but at this stage, it's just us versus us," he said. 

In his article for the Harvard Business Review, "The Underlying Psychology of Office Politics," Chamorro says if you want to understand the place you work, you have to learn to play the game:

  1. Pay attention: Invisible forces of power are at play in any office. You can't ignore the dynamics; you're a part of them. 
  2. Put yourself in others' shoes: Empathy is key in understanding the psychology of the workplace and how to get along.
  3. Don't believe everything you hear. Even for employees who fancy themselves apolitical, a little skepticism makes you smart. It helps protect against people who might try to manipulate office dynamics.

Even though politics are inevitable in the workplace, the best companies have collective psyches that encourage both competition and compassion. Chamorro says they strike a healthy balance of three fundamental human needs that drive human behavior:

  1. Get Along With Others: Human life is only possible if we live together. That's why we have an instinctual need to connect.
  2. Getting ahead: In tension with the need to make friends is the need to make a name for ourselves.
  3. Finding meaning: We want to understand the world's patterns, predict behavior, and be ready for what comes. 

When these three needs are in balance, employees are more engaged, and, in turn, they're more productive. Chamorro says while politics are inevitable in any organization, they don't have to be toxic.

"If you're too political," he said, "you'll self destruct." 

But the only way to change things is from the top.

"Senior leaders create culture in an organization," he said. "It's not a matter of hours or days or weeks. It takes months." Leaders can replace conniving employees and put in processes that make things more transparent and decrease the degree to which employees perceive the inevitable politics at play. For the employees at the bottom, you have to learn to play the game before you. And if the politics is too much, maybe it's time to find a new job.

"If you want to move up, you have to play the game," Chamorro says. "Once you get there, stop playing the Machiavellian game."