How to manage office politics

Office politics can be a nightmare for managers. While massive egos exert power and influence through posturing, peacocking, and personal branding, gossip hounds congregate around the water cooler whispering the stories they use for getting ahead. How can you ensure your company’s culture will survive politics in the workplace?

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Office politics are unavoidable

According to the Harvard Business Review, companies are by their very nature political places where everyone attempts to be recognized and exert some level of influence. Workplaces are political because people are political.

“Our relationships with our colleagues — with whom we both collaborate and compete for promotions, for a coveted project, or for the boss’s attention — can be quite complex.

No one in the history of business has avoided office politics. We’ve all learned we need political skill to navigate the political environments of our workplace and achieve career success. You have to develop your people skills if you want to deal with the conflicting agendas, ambitions, and insecurities lurking in the cubicles. However, office politics are conducted by a set of unwritten rules which makes their outcome often feel rigged or unfair. Studies show this negatively impacts company morale.

As a manager, you can help guide your team to a more positive form of office politics. Social scientist Gerald Ferris has done extensive research into corporate political gamesmanship and believes they can be broken into four categories:

  • Social astuteness: is the ability to read people and understand how they see you. Knowing how other people view you and how your behavior impacts them is a soft skill that helps you understand your place in team dynamics.
  • Interpersonal influence: is affecting how people think by understanding their preferences and agendas and then appealing to their preferences. You understand how to subtly work people to your advantage.
  • Networking ability: the skill of forming mutually beneficial relationships with a wide range of people. Having allies can be helpful for pursuing personal agendas.
  • Apparent sincerity: appearing honest and open — a straight shooter. People believing you are honest is more important than actually being honest.

People possessing these four kinds of skills exhibit more leadership, perform their jobs better, and receive promotions more often than their peers. Working with your team to develop these kinds of social intelligence and apply them in a positive way can help them excel in their roles and focus their energies on productive political savviness. 

Accept and manage before it goes too far

“It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both” — Machiavelli

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How to deal with negative office politics

Putting out the political fires at work requires a manager to be aware. Invest time in your team and get to know them. Start paying attention to their interactions. Which ones are the office politicians and which ones try not to engage in office politics? Understanding your team’s dynamic helps you shut down the rumor mills and mitigate conflicts. 

Try to understand the informal network running underneath your organization’s formal one. Work at building trust with your team so they feel comfortable talking to you when office politics get toxic. Your office will have its Machiavellis seeking power and personal gain above everything. Know who they are and how to manage them best.

Learning who’s who and what motivates them in terms of office dynamics will help you work with the different players and guide them through tricky workplace politics.

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Exerting soft influence on office politicians

The best way to navigate office politics is to get in the game. Getting to know your team will help you understand the unwritten rules your employees sometimes play by when engaging in organizational politics

Leverage your emotional intelligence to understand how to inspire and create a circle of influence within your team. You can learn more about developing your emotional intelligence in our article, Top 10 Soft Skills You Need.

Here are some ways to use your influence to deal with office politics before it impacts workplace culture:

  • Build relationships with your team on a business and social level.
  • Communicate honestly about business objectives and challenges with your team.
  • Avoid office gossip.
  • Gain an understanding of the informal circles of influence in your organization.
  • Inspire your team through your consistent actions more than your words.
  • Be a team player willing to take on any challenge or task required. 
  • Understand what motivates team members and learn to appeal to their motivations.

“Trying to squash a rumour is like trying to un-ring a bell” – Shana Alexander

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How to resolve workplace conflicts

Despite your best efforts, people will butt heads from time to time as their ambitions and agendas conflict with someone else’s. Such conflicts can wreak havoc in office life. You must act swiftly when resolving conflicts within your team. 

Here are five steps to keep your team together and deal with office politics.

  1. Identify the conflict – The first step in tackling team disagreements is identifying where and why the conflict originated. Make sure you understand both sides of the disagreement. Ask questions until you’re positive the parties understand the issue as well.
  2. Listen actively to both parties – Take the conflicted parties to a safe space and provide them equal time to express their concerns and opinions. You will probably need to set some ground rules about respectful communication. Encourage everyone to be honest and open so you can move toward a solution.
  3. Look into the situation – After hearing from all involved parties, take time to reflect on what was said. You may have to have additional conversations and be aware there might be additional underlying conflicts that weren’t evident at first.
  4. Agree on common goals – the goal of any conflict resolution is to address the issue and ensure it doesn’t happen again. Sit down with the parties to discuss and brainstorm ways to deal with the conflict so it doesn’t resurface.
  5. Determine the best solution – All the parties need to agree on the best solution, which is the one everyone can live with. Look for common ground and determine the responsibilities everyone has to resolve the conflict. Check back in the future to make sure things are going smoothly. 

The Classical Athenian philosopher Plato once said, One of the penalties of refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” In terms of office politics, if you refuse to play the political game you’re less likely to get ahead.

As a manager, be honest with your team and acknowledge office politics are inevitable, but stress to them there are collaborative ways to be politically savvy and still share a spirit of teamwork. Keep a sharp eye out for trouble spots and deal with conflicts quickly. You can set the example by playing the game in an honest and dignified way your team can model themselves after.

Common Questions

Can I avoid politics in the office?2021-09-11T12:11:03+00:00

No. Office politics will always be present, but you can use them to advance the greater good and your career at the same time. As a manager, this begins by engaging your team with honest dialog and transparent action and agendas. For more tips on how to do this, look at our course on Communication Strategies.


What are some examples of workplace politics?2021-09-11T12:12:08+00:00

Office politics originate from the power dynamics in an organization as people look to get ahead socially, financially, and positionally. Business News Daily lists the following examples of Negative and Positive Office Politics:

  • Backstabbing a colleague
  • Blackmailing a colleague
  • Forming malicious alliances against other colleagues
  • Gossiping or spreading rumors about others
  • Intentionally withholding important information
  • Volunteering
  • Presenting a professional image
  • Complimenting and recognizing others


How can I tell if my office has become political?2021-09-12T10:03:30+00:00

David Frankel is a managing partner of the consultant firm Slingstone Group and he lists five signs that workplace politics are threatening your organization:

  • An individual’s personal rewards do not align with organizational rewards.
  • There is a “system” that needs to be worked, and the best navigators are rewarded.
  • Urgency takes a back seat to process, and the stakeholders in the status quo become threatened by change.
  • People who do not regularly produce results don’t get fired or reprimanded.
  • The average employee has little knowledge of and visibility into the company’s decision-making.

This is one of our executive briefings taken from our series of professional online business short courses from ELL. We have over 150 courses online with over 1,000 hours of e-learning covering a wide range of topics across leadership, management and personal & professional development created by industry experts and learning professionals.

Managing Office Politics Course

Office politics are the essence of our own real life reality shows. People are social and interactive and inevitably will get on and fall out. As a manager, your trick is to keep people focused and positive and avoid negative clique building and pernicious behaviours that can harm and damage people and productivity and even lead to job losses and effects on the business. Our course will give guidance on handling and preventing situation, the classic office personalities and strategies to keep people focused and positive.

By the end of this short course on office politics, you will:

  • Accept and manage office politics before it gets out of hand
  • Know the key personality types that can detract and support you
  • Bring teams along with your vision through authenticity and influence

In each of our business courses, you get access to around six hours of e-learning that you can watch, listen and read. There are usually 100 questions and at the end of the course you will receive a certificate of completion that you can use against any personal or professional development requirements. As well as the course, you also receive a FREE e-book that you can read on your Kindle or other e-reader. You also get a FREE audiobook of the course so you can listen to the whole course uninterrupted on your device.

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