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Will Hutton

Will Hutton

Principal, Hertford College, Oxford University and chair of the Big Innovation Centre

Thursday 19 Sep 2013
Why HR professionals need to know about office politics

Why HR professionals need to know about office politics

Large or small, multinational or family-owned, public, private or third sector, every workplace has 'office politics' in one form or another.

Some HR practitioners might consider office politics a subject best avoided through fear of becoming too embroiled in others' games.

Their current role is more often likely to be passive, either accepting or ignoring what's happening, rather than helping others to understand more about power and politics.

But HR practitioners could be in an ideal position to help others understand how organisations truly work. From their standpoint looking over the whole organisation, they can see how decisions are made, and could advise others how to move beyond the corrosive, dark side of office politics and harness the power of what we call positive politics.

By promoting a positive culture, managers are able to channel people's interests and energy away from negative political interplay and towards an alignment with the organisation's objectives.

So how are office politics generally perceived within organisations?

Constructive or destructive?

Often employees will make comments that highlight the negative side of office politics, for example:

"My boss favours some individuals in the team too much even when things go wrong it rarely seems to be their fault"

"You can't get much done in this department unless you play the politics game".

A recent survey suggests, however, that these negative perceptions may be shifting. In 'Dealing with People, Power and Politics at Work (Clarke, 2012), some 50% of respondents described office politics as being constructive rather than destructive, a significant shift from the 20% figure in a survey three years earlier.

This implies that office politics is often about how you see things. Some people may describe it as "a noble and higher activity, which underpins human co-operation", while others may view it as "kissing up and kicking down".

Unfortunately, in many organisations issues of power and influence are not openly discussed and some of the politicking that takes place can be highly divisive. Very few businesses offer learning opportunities that could help individuals understand their own political and influencing skills (and importantly how they can improve them).

One of the key barriers is that many people are completely resistant to engaging with office politics - perhaps because they feel they have been passed over, or outmanoeuvered, in the past.

A role for HR?

Becoming more adept at office politics is a journey that involves individuals developing a better understanding of power and influence.

HR professionals could support this journey by helping colleagues across the business reframe the way they see politics. An important first step is to recognise themselves that politics are part of organisational life and that it is possible to use your political awareness and network positively.

The following five tips are designed to help HR professionals begin to develop a better understanding of office politics.

1. Accept that office politics exist

You might envy those who sail through each day putting in little effort but still seem to rise up the ladder of your organisation. The fact is that to ensure your progress, you have to play the game, and office politics is here to stay. You can't ignore it: to win a game, you have to be part of it. And, don't forget it can be positive for all.

2. Understand your organisation

To move ahead in any organisation you must understand its structure, its position on contentious issues and its goals for the future. Learn who the influencers are and where the organisation's priorities lie. Knowing this will help you distinguish the most important people to "cultivate" and also the correct way to respond in the best interests of you and your organisation.

3. Influence your outcomes

If you're trying to sell an idea that is radical, new or controversial, it is advisable to have the majority of decision-makers on your side before you begin. Otherwise, you could run the risk of failure or of damaging your reputation. Persuading the most influential stakeholders to your point of view will help you influence others.

4. Behave ethically at all times

Stay on the straight and narrow. There is a fine line between what is ethical and what is not. Dirt sticks, so the best way to protect your reputation is to avoid trouble in the first place. Again, make sure you know where the organisation stands and in what direction it is moving. Always ask yourself: "If they knew my plans, would they let me proceed?" If they can see you are doing it for the benefit of the organisation, then some would say that is an ethical approach.

5. Promote your accomplishments

Be proud of your accomplishments. Make sure that your own efforts are recognised and noted by those who matter. Although it might feel uncomfortable, there is nothing wrong with advertising your success. So, watch how others do it, learn their techniques and find out which form of self-promotion works best for you.

Phil Anderson and Viki Holton are both members of faculty at Ashridge Business School