Office politics are the unwritten rules of interactions in an organization. Social politics form in any group of people that interact regularly. Families have politics. Cliques in schools are a form of politics. And, of course, coworkers have a set of norms that they operate under.
Office politics are commonly used to gain a personal advantage within the day-to-day operation of the company. That leads to the generally poor reputation office politics has. Getting the corner office, the first crack at overtime, or virtually any other tangible or intangible benefit fall into this category.
Office politics also govern the acceptable social norms. Things like volunteering for kaizen events or calling attention to problems can both be influenced by the group interactions. If the group is generally opposed to those activities, they will apply pressure to keep members from doing them.
Understanding office politics helps with continuous improvement in two main ways. First, those people who are promoting Lean, whether leaders or frontline team members, will avoid more missteps that can derail an improvement initiative.
Secondly, office politics echo the culture of an organization. Knowing how a group interacts provides insight into the values and attitudes of the group. That knowledge will make the path towards a continuous improvement culture far less rocky.
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Office politics are nearly universally viewed with a negative connotation. That certainly does come when office politics are used to advance a personal agenda, but that is not the whole story.
In a broader sense, office politics seeps into nearly all interactions. This applies even when the gain is not directly personal. Some people are known as individuals who can get things done. They know who to talk to, how to approach them, and what to offer in return for help. Organizations have formal structures and org charts, but in reality, accomplishing tasks often requires knowing the unofficial channels. This is the far more benign way that office politics works.
The role of office politics seems to increase as people get busier and are competing for more scarce resources. Money gets tight, space is not always available, special resources can be hard to get, and people are harried—they don’t have a lot of time to spare to help out a kaizen.
Getting things done requires a few things. First, it requires developing relationships and reputation. When you need something is not the time that you should be meeting people. You are far more likely to be well-received if you already know the person. It can be as simple as introducing yourself to someone in a meeting. You never know when you’ll cross paths again down the road.
Second, effective office politics requires mutual assistance. You cannot take all the time without giving to others. In fact, good things tend to follow people who are generous with their time and resources.
Third, it requires a little knowledge of psychology. You have to be able to pick up on people’s moods and needs, and approach them at the right time.
An example might be in getting some assistance from administrative assistants in ordering lunch for kaizen teams. It is likely not part of their job, and they are likely busy. If you have treated them well all along, met all their deadlines so their job was easier, and routinely have kind words for them, you are likely to get support. If you walk briskly past their desk without even a hello, and they have to hound you to get them reports, you might not get their help.
Effective people manage their relationships with others well. The truth is that office politics is just a negative name for poorly executed relationship management. Office politics has a bad reputation simply because they are a favorite tool for career enhancement at the expense of others. Here’s a revelation: teamwork, cooperation, collaboration, and communication are all forms of office politics! Regardless of how you label it, when you put positive energy into building relationships with those around you, and you will likely be more effective at your job.
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