Office Politics: The Cynical and the Savvy

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Office Politics: The Cynical and the Savvy

A memorandum is written not to inform the reader but protect the writer. (Dean Acheson)

Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his political life. (Jeremy Thorpe, 1962)

Office politics is a seriously bad thing. Ask people what they mean and they say backstabbing, brown-nosing, bootlicking, style-over-substance, manipulative, hidden agendas, old boy networks, deals under the table, turf struggles, testosterone overload. Ask people to rate their organization on a 10-point scale and a few are bound to say 11.

So why does it occur in some organizations more than others? Here are some possible explanations: excessive competition at the top; ambiguous goals for individuals and departments; complex structures; having no clear definition of performance; high (or very low) level of change; punishment culture; limited resources; and jobs being at risk.

What are the key features of the concept? First, perhaps, is the secrecy, the covert agendas and the under-handedness of it all. There are the insiders and the outsiders. Politics is exclusionary. Office politics is about processes, procedures and decisions that are not meant to be scrutinized. Politics is about opaqueness not transparency. Second, there is impression management. Another word for this may be hypocrisy. Third, office politics are about self-interest. They are concerned with power and all of the trappings like money and prestige. It is about select groups hijacking activities, processes and procedures to secure their (and only their) interests. Covert groupings of individuals based on clan, ideology or simply greed, co-operate with each other to obtain an unfair share of the resources of an organization. In this sense, office politics act against long-term organizational interests at least from a shareholder perspective.

The negative view is clear. Politics causes distrust, conflict and lowered productivity. People do not openly share, they are guarded. They spend too much time and energy ingratiating themselves to the in-group and try to work the system.


But there is another perspective and it’s much more positive. Office politics is about building and strengthening networks and coalitions: it is about getting together movers and shakers prepared to do the hardest thing of all — make change happen. About driving through necessary but unpopular strategies. About identifying those with energy and vision — those who command various constituencies.

Researchers in this area claim you can divide people into those who believe organizations are rational, logical and just and those who see them as human systems with many foibles (DeLuca, 1999). Those who take the first view are political avoiders: some are cynics, others believe success results from hard work. Those who take the second view — political engagers — are divided into Machiavellians and the savvy. Both are politically aware, but the latter act with integrity while the former do not.

Savvy people recognize that at work some people have more power than others, either through hierarchy or some other basis of influence. For most, gaining promotion is important, and this can create competition between individuals, or misalignment between the team’s objectives and those of individuals within it. Most people care about decisions at work and this encourages political behaviour as they seek to get their way. Decisions at work are impacted by both work-related goals and personal factors, which causes conflict. People and teams within organizations often have to compete for limited resources, which can lead to conflict where teams compete to satisfy their needs and objectives, even when this is against the greater good.

Politically savvy people tend to:

1 Partner with your boss: Unless you have unique and irreplaceable knowledge or skills (or are related to the CEO), your boss has more power than you do. Politically-savvy people know how to ’manage up’.

2 Be a team player: With a wide network of relationships, you will have more information about what’s going on. Politically savvy people develop positive relationships in all directions.

3 Understand the power map: Organizations are power hierarchies. And from time to time, that power shifts. To succeed, you need to know where the leverage lies — who has influence (formal/informal), who doesn’t, and how much you have yourself.

4 Practise subtle self-promotion: No one can appreciate you if they don’t know what you’re doing. Find natural ways to mention achievements and challenges, like sending regular progress reports to your boss or chatting about your projects at lunch.

5 Connect with powerful people: The big decisions about your career will be made (or endorsed) by people above your boss, so you need to make sure they know who you are. Since you may have limited access, look for interaction opportunities and be ready with a question to ask or information to share.

6 Commit to the business: An indifferent, apathetic attitude never impressed anyone. If you want decision-makers to think well of you, you need to be interested in, and excited about, the business, because you can bet they are. Politically savvy people choose a career that they find interesting and energizing.


Savvy people have political skill which is: The ability to effectively understand others at work and to use such knowledge to influence others to act in ways that enhance one’s personal and/or organizational objectives. It has four factors:

1 Social Astuteness: This is about being perceptive, insightful, attuned to all the vagaries and nuances of everyday interactions. It is about being psychologically minded. It is about being aware of self and others: how you are ’coming across’, what they are really saying.

2 Interpersonal Influence: This is about being persuasive in different contexts. It inevitably means being adaptable and flexible, being a good negotiator and skilful.

3 Networking ability: This is understanding the usefulness of, and more importantly to be able to establish, a range of alliances, coalitions and friendship networks. This involves the serious skills of deal making, conflict management and negotiation.

4 Apparent Sincerity: This is about being able to look authentic and genuine on all occasions, irrespective of what you really think or feel.

Office politics is inevitable. Everyone can learn to be savvy and politically skilful and aware and most importantly act with integrity.


Deluca J. (1999). Political Savvy. Berwyn, Pennsylvania: Evergreen.

Ferris, et al. (2005). Development and validation of the political skill inventory. Journal of Management, 31, 126—152.