"Office Politics" is a term that is generally understood as "the way people in the workplace relate to each other, and the games you have to play to get along, and/or get ahead."
You know that political patterns are in place when you hear "advice" like:
- "You have to learn how to play the game around here"
- "Make sure you never tell the manager any bad news"
- "If you want to get something done, go through Linda"
- "The only reason Bill got ahead is because he sucked up to the boss"
- "Keep your head down, don't make waves, and wait for the right opportunity"
- "You have to make sure that the supervisor feels like your idea was her idea"
At the heart of office politics are two things:
- a correspondingly uncomfortable relationship with truth-telling.
Anxiety is basically "emotional pain." It's something everyone has to some degree. This emotional pain isn't directed toward anything specific (like an identifiable fear), but it acts as a warning signal that danger may be near and that we must protect ourselves. Anxiety is a reaction to perceived threat, whether one exists, or not. At one level, it serves us when a potential threat really does exist (and we go into "fight or flight" mode). At another level, it leads us to react in a self-preserving way where no danger actually exists.
When we are anxiously reactive, we lose our objectivity, our creativity, our capacity to imagine and reflect, our ability to consider a wide range of options, and we instinctively behave in a defensive manner. Those who are "acutely anxious" can recover these resources without too much difficulty. Those who are "chronically anxious" seem to live in a constantly reactive state (and therefore have trouble accessing these resources); a regular state of "fight or flight."
What is the tie-in between anxiety and truth-telling? When was the last time you thought about having a difficult and truthful conversation with someone? What made it a difficult thing to imagine doing? What conversations haven't you had because you just "don't want to go there?" What held you back?
The reason offices have an uncomfortable relationship with truth-telling (which is what office politics are really about) is because of the levels of anxiety in the workplace. When anxiety levels are low (like when stressors are few, or the people in the workplace manage their own emotions well), office politics don't hold sway in quite the same way. When anxiety levels are high (either acutely or chronically), office politics are in full swing.
Workarounds as alternatives to truthfulness
Since being truthful is often seen as threatening to the giver and the receiver, we find all kinds of workarounds-hello, office politics. The more politics we engage in, the more patterns develop. Eventually, what might have been thought of as "dysfunctional" behaviors become quite "functional" (not "healthy," just "functional") in that they successfully enable the individuals in the whole system to avoid the perceived danger of being truthful.
When all is said and done
My guess is that most of us want to be able to look in the mirror (or reflect on our careers) with the satisfaction that we were true to our values, honest in our interactions, and contributed to the integrity of our vocational context.