Navigating the Workplace: Politics and Toxicity
Office politics is an inevitable part of organizational life, however the default is usually to associate political behavior with backstabbing and manipulation — but there is also a less often talked about constructive side to being politically savvy and playing ‘the game’. I’ve come to realize that it’s important to separate the skill from the environment which it takes place in order to avoid doing myself a disservice that prevents me from positioning myself to leverage my social capital for career success.
Political skill is an interpersonal style that combines social astuteness and the ability to execute appropriate behaviors in an engaging manner that inspires confidence and trust. Naturally skilled individuals not only know exactly what to do in different social situations at work, but they also possess the ability to execute in a manner that diffuses the thought of any potentially manipulative motives. Workplace politics differs from other types of social effectiveness competencies in that it is specific to interactions aimed at achieving success in you professional career.
Individuals who are highly competent in their networking ability are able to position themselves well in order to create and take advantage of opportunities. Because of their subtle style, politically skilled individuals easily develop strong and beneficial alliances and coalitions. There is a need to exercise caution however and to fine tune this skill because individuals must also appear to be sincere, authentic, honest, and genuine when dealing with colleagues in the workplace as these key skills can easily be interpreted as manipulative or devolve into toxic behavior depending on the attitude of the workplace environment.
What differentiates a healthy and competitive workplace attitude from a full-blown incident of organizational toxicity? Workplaces turn toxic due to organizational inertia a lack of focus on the core competencies that make such organizations tick and can often be due to external factors such as financial losses and the resultant demoralization of the workplace that leads to finger pointing and getting caught up in various cycles of the blame game.
Every other day there are new incidences of employer malpractice that have been normalized especially in developing countries; staff working overtime with no pay, preferred treatment towards people that spend company time scoring social points with their bosses and languishing them with praise and ‘eye service’ over those that actually do their part to get the job done — just to name a few. Special mention goes to the disgraceful practice of government and private institutions withholding employee salaries with no explanation for months on end.
Though workplaces are more likely to become toxic or to be seen as a toxic environment when the leaders in charge of steering the ship fall asleep at the wheel so to speak, at the same time, there are also instances of ‘lone wolf individuals’ contributing to organizational toxicity shrouded in protective cloaks of having a big personality, being a long-time member of staff or even seniority. In this kind of environment, an individual well versed in office politics would be able to take advantage of certain situations with almost free-reign.
In saner climes, this is where a vigilant Human Resource department would step in to mitigate the risk of this situation escalating and play the important role of preventing the slide towards toxicity, however I am yet to be convinced that the latest generation of power mad HR executives whose tales I frequently come across on social media have the range to honor the duty of care required for their profession with actual professionalism.
This is particularly disheartening as it is usually of the utmost importance for the human resources team and senior leadership to be on the same page and hold the rest of the organization to a high standard in order to prevent symptoms of toxicity from becoming a structural disease.
Experience has shown that even a well-established and long running company has the potential to become toxic in instances where the senior leadership starts to devote more time to power centers and the agendas behind them rather than pay attention to employee wellbeing (which by the way is a major red flag).
Whether we like it or not, being able to negotiate, influence, engage, convince, and persuade others is how things get done in almost every aspect of our daily lives — and is often how organizations decide what’s worth doing at all. Though organizational toxicity is neither inevitable nor simply dismissed as a byproduct of our times, you would be hard pressed to find a fully ideal workplace. The key is to find a balance, find a company with a code of ethics you respect, a company culture that you fit into or simply a place that ticks the minimum number of boxes you’re willing to manage.
When dealing with office politics, it’s best to:
- Face it head on and with a positive attitude
- Keep your moral compass facing North — be true to your nature
- Swing the odds in your favor by engaging with workplace activities
- Remember that the tactics that increase workplace influence i.e. assertiveness, ingratiation, and self-promotion, will not be effective, and might even be damaging to one’s reputation, if not done with political skill and finesse
Political skill is a necessity that makes the tactics effective. Even though the emphasis is on having these skills in order to increase managerial and organizational effectiveness it is not the end of the world if it doesn’t come naturally. This is where mentoring, executive coaching and other development strategies come in to play and why when on a formal career path, it is advised career development should always be prioritized!