OFFICE POLITICS: How to play the politics game ethically and win it

office politics
If there are people, there is politics.
/ May 25, 2015

The words “office politics” sound disturbing to many. It reminds them of that manipulative asshole co-worker or boss who got promoted by kissing asses and backstabbing bedfellows despite being incompetent. They think politics is an immoral device for the unethical. They want to stay out of this dirty game, and even wish it would just go away. But, the reality is, so long as organizations have people, there will be politics. Politics was there in your school, and in your university, but you didn’t label it at politics and never thought of it as something nefarious because it didn’t cost you much. However, in a work environment, you are in a competition with others to claim more power and more money. And, if someone undeserving gets more power and money, you blame it on politics. We all do it.

Politically savvy people are out there networking with and influencing people to gain something for themselves and/or for the organization — not to hurt you. Yes, there are assholes, but for the most part, people are busy being aggressive in getting what they want. Your getting hurt in the process is just an involuntary side effect of their personal agenda. Not everyone at the top is an immoral bastard who got there at the expense of others. What they know is the art of influencing people behind-the-scenes. Politics is a matter of influencing people in getting them to think your way. Joel DeLuca in his book Political Savvy defines political savvy as

Ethically building a critical mass of support for an idea you care about.

The good news is that there is a systematic set of strategies you can adopt to become an ethical and savvy politics player. People may learn these by observation, or by holding hands of a mentor. This article aims to help those eager ones who are willing to play this game without putting a dent in their conscience.

Before you proceed, make sure you have a good grasp of the necessary social and persuasion skills — read Social Skills – Ten handy skills to gain the edge in your social life and Persuasion and Influencing skills – Six ways to get them to say yes – The art of persuasion.

Step 1. Understand your own political style and of people around you.

It may not be helping you, but you do have a political style. For example, when the children pout to get something they want, they are using “manipulation” style. There are two aspects of political styles – one to do with people’s actions towards politics, and the other to do with their values towards it.

Action: Some people are active in politics, versus others who are reactive to politics.


Value: Some people think politics is immoral, and others understand it is a part of life.

The political style grid (source Political Savvy, Joel DeLuca) on the right illustrates action and value orientations of people towards politics. The vertical dimension indicates the action orientation in increasing order from responds to predicts to initiates.

The horizontal dimension designates the value orientation and moves from negative to neutral to positive. The assholes you think of when you hear the word politics fall in Machiavellian category.


Step 2. Choose to be an active, ethical player

To be an ethical and savvy player, your style should be a combination of the three cells in the top right — Responsible, Leader, and Advisor.

Joe DeLuca (Political Savvy, p. 48)

More important than strategy skills, interpersonal abilities, and intellectual capacity (which are all significant in becoming savvy) was the attitude of those identified as highly savvy. Choose the right attitude towards it and move on to three practical steps below.

Step 3. Form a coalition

This is a critical element of the game. No matter at what the level you are, you should be proactively forming alliances and coalitions. You should continuously aim to expand your circle of influence — across departments, and not just within your function. Focus on ethical coalitions, not manipulative conspiracy. Learn the art of working the human system. Be genuinely interested in others and the work they do, regardless of their level or influence in the organization. The common agenda of a well-formed coalition can magnify its collective influence. It is like a blank check that you can cash when you need support from others.

For steps 4 and 5, let’s consider a real work-life scenario. Alice has a proposal for which she needs the green light from the CEO. To make any such decision, the CEO always consults all members of the team who are Alice’s co-worker’s: Bill, Tom, Craig, and Owen. The four people have different level of influence in the organization. Some are against Alice’s idea, and some are indifferent. In other words, Alice will have to work very hard to get the four people aligned with her idea if she wants to demonstrate to the CEO that they support her. What is she going to do?

Step 4. Develop a political lay of the land

This is where we get technical. Here we use OPMT, or, Organization Politics Mapping Technique. The idea may seem very silly, but it has been proven to be effective. The concept was proposed by Joel DeLuco in his book Political Savvy. It is especially effective when you are trying to propose a change, or a project, and there is a certain degree of uncertainty and resistance from people with various levels of influence in the organization. A naturally savvy person can build this up in his/her head, however, a novice will benefit from this tool as s/he is learning the ropes of the game. It methodically captures the critical political information needed for one to plan the next moves.

First, answer these five questions — the questions are on the horizontal axis of OPMT diagram that Alice if going to fill in the process. Fill in the values for all the key players in the diagram.


Next, take those values and plot them in this chart. For negative relationships between people, use a dotted line, for positive, use a solid line.

For Alice, the outcome looks like this:

What does this tell her?

  • Alice gets along well with Bill (solid line.) The solid line is formally called credibility path.
  • Alice doesn’t get along well with Craig and Owen (dotted line.)
  • Bill gets along well with Craig, who in turn gets along well with Tom.
  • Alice has no relationship with Craig.
  • Owen has a very high influence in the organization, and at the same time, he is against Alice’s idea.
  • Bill is indifferent to the idea.
  • And so forth…

Step 5. Chart a political strategy

How can Alice use this information from the step above?

Alice has already built coalition with Bill, and the relationship between the two is a solid line. So Alice leverages that relationship with Bill to further her idea. That’s it. Alice only talks to Bill, and no one else. You will see that others will fall in favor of her through Bill. Bill has a solid line with Craig — Bill proposes the ideal to Craig, and Craig is in favor since Craig and Bill has a solid line relationship. Craig has a solid line relationship with Tom and forwards the idea to Tom. So, just by keeping Bill on her side and speaking with him, Alice now has aligned three players in support of her proposal. The collective push from this group of four will outweigh the influence of Owen and thus Alice will get her proposal accepted.

Alice played it like a political savvy person she is. Now also consider what Alice didn’t do:

Go directly to Owen.

Owen has a high influence in the organization. Alice could think that it is most important to overcome Owen’s resistance by forming a coalition with him. This could have worked if Alice had great interpersonal skills, but in most cases it backfires. Owen would have shot the idea down right at the onset since he was already against the idea.

Talk to everyone. 

You may think that if Alice gets everyone aligned with her idea, it will be easier for her. But Owen doesn’t trust her, and she has no relationship with Tom. If half of the team is against the idea, it won’t look favorable to the CEO.

Talk to no one.

Alice may have decided to stay out of the game and let her work do the talking. But we all know, it is naive idea and in reality, it doesn’t work like that.


To sum up

To recap:[su_highlight background=”#fffd99″] 1) understand your and political styles of people around you. 2) Choose to be an active, ethical player. 3) Form a coalition. 4) Plot the OPMT. 5) Develop a strategy[/su_highlight].

Anyone can learn these strategies and begin applying them in real life work situations and become comfortable with it with time. Alice made a prudent use of behind-the-scenes leadership, instead of limelight leadership that entails bold decisions, symbolic actions, and using charisma.

I will quote Joel DeLuca again

Contrary to popular opinion, charisma and interpersonal skills, while important, were not found to be central to becoming politically savvy. In fact, individuals with these qualities tend to rely on them too heavily, thereby hindering their development of savvy strategies.

Also read Social Skills – Ten handy skills to gain the edge in your social life and Persuasion and Influencing skills – Six ways to get them to say yes – The art of persuasion.