Every office in America has office politics, which is the way people influence decisions in a company from outside the designated chain of command. The chain of command seen in most offices requires changes to come down from the top or laboriously up from the bottom. A worker with an idea has to convince his boss and his boss has to convince his boss and so on until the idea, possibly now diluted or distorted, reaches the level where decisions are made. Failure to follow the chain of command can get a worker fired in a hurry.
Even when people of equal standing go into business together, as in physician partnerships, there is always one person, usually the oldest, to whom the others defer, waiting to hear what he will say before they decide what their position will be. A doctor, for example, can earn this position because of his knowledge and experience or, sometimes, because he is considered to be the most savvy in business, technology, or one of the clinical areas of importance to the group. Sometimes this person is given the title of managing partner.
Office politics exists because every office worker does have some autonomy and the possibility of affecting the course of the company and of his own career, but also because every office worker has to contend with a built-in, hierarchical power structure that is difficult to influence in any other way.
Office politics has earned a bad reputation because it is often used in a negative way. A person who wants to change the way something is done, either because he believes it will be good for the company or for him personally or both, attacks the person who is seen to be defending the status quo. Often this is a personal attack, done when the other person is not present, in which the attacker tries to throw some doubt on the other person’s intelligence, work ethic, or motives. Even though they may be covert, failure to be aware of and respond to these attacks can earn the other person the reputation of being out of touch and of actually having the flaws with which he has been labeled.
If the person who wants the change does not have enough power on his own to effect the change, he will recruit allies, convincing them of the truth of his allegations and inciting them to act in the same way. The person attacked will often also have or recruit allies of his own. If the struggle is uneven, it will be over fairly quickly. The loser will be fired, quit, or go along with the change. If not, the charges and countercharges can go on long enough to demoralize everyone involved and cripple the company. Either way, valuable people are lost or disempowered. This type of office politics is dangerous and debilitating to people and companies.
Office politics can be positive. A person who wants change can spend his time and energy convincing people of the value of his ideas. He can recruit allies to help him think of different ways to explain his ideas and spread them further. In some offices, he can recruit people and resources to help him test his ideas before presenting them to a broader audience (skunk works). Positive office politics foster teamwork, creativity, experimentation, adaptation to a rapidly changing world, empowerment, good morale, and the health and growth of people and companies.
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