Enlightened Office Politics

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Michael S. Dobson and Deborah S. Dobson

Have you ever thought—or said— things like this? "I can't stand all the office politics in this company." "It's not what you know, it's who you know." "If you don't play the right games and eat lunch with the right people, you'll never get promoted." If you think these assertions are true, well, frankly, you're right. If you think they are necessarily bad—well, they certainly can be.

One thing is certain: office politics is inevitable in every organization with three or more people in it. And you know you're faced with a choice: influencer or influenced, knowing or guessing, controller or controlled. If you don't like this choice, you probably believe that you have only two options—to be an unethical, manipulative swine or to be a saintly but helpless victim of forces beyond your comprehension or control.

That's the essential dilemma of the principled person when faced with the reality of office politics in an organization. If you think your only alternatives are to give up your principles or to surrender your effectiveness and your job security, no wonder you think you have only terrible choices. In fact, being a principled person can make you more effective and more successful in the world of office politics, especially if you look at your situation in terms of your long-term goals and interests.

What It Means to Be a Principled Person
A principled person is one with a commitment to principled behavior—integrity—at the core. Principled people are honest, reliable, dependable and professional. They do what they say they will do. Principled people are individuals with a commitment to the organization for which they work. That means they have a shared vision of what the organization is and what it needs to be, and they are willing to commit themselves toward that goal even at the cost of their short-term advancement and success.

A principled person has the skills and drive necessary to advance those goals within the boundaries of good character. Without the skills, without the work, without the effort, principles are simply hot air. A real principled person knows that the work counts and demonstrates a good work ethic about long-term as well as immediate job efforts.

Being a principled person, however, does not mean renouncing power in all its forms. Principled people can still seek out power to further their goals without being ruthless or corrupt.

Why You Need Power
Success in politics involves the acquisition and use of power. The principled person often has an ethical concern about power. Is it morally acceptable to seek power? How you acquire and how you use power and the purposes for which you use your power are subject to ethical rules. The mere fact of power considered alone is morally and ethically neutral.

There are six types of power within organizations:

  1. Role power is the power inherent in your position. If you're a vice president or a clerk, a member of the executive committee or  the picnic committee, if you're in the marketing department or building maintenance, your position in the organization is one measure of your power.
  2. Respect power is the power you get from the opinions others hold about you. If you're respected for your knowledge, your skills, your record of accomplishment, your personal integrity, you gain power. There is a negative version of respect power: fear power.
  3. Rhetoric power is the power you get from your communications ability. If you're persuasive, a good writer, able to speak publicly, a talented negotiator, you gain influence over others from that skill.
  4. Resource power is the power that comes from what you control. If you have the power to approve someone's budget, to decide which projects are funded, to decide who gets access to mainframe computer resources, or to select who goes on the business trip to Paris, your control of these resources translates into political power.
  5. Relationship power is the power that comes from whom you know and how you know them. If you're a golfing buddy of the chairman of the board, or the protégé of a vice president on the rise, or even friends with the right clerk in accounting, you get power on the basis of those relationships.
  6. Reason or purpose power is the power you get from being goal-oriented. If you have a clear vision for your department or for the company, you automatically have more power and influence than someone who has no goal at all. This type of power is essential if you're going to be an ethical politician who isn't thought of by others as "political."

There are three key lessons you can draw from this discussion:

  1. You don't have to be equally strong in all areas to be powerful.
  2. The sources of power are interactive: Strength in one area influences all the others; weakness in one area detracts  from all the others.
  3. The core of power is in having a reason or purpose for its use and application.

What If You Decide Not to Play?
Surely, if you do a good job, work hard, avoid political behavior, and stay honest and friendly, you'll be okay, right? Wrong. Deciding not to play office politics, unfortunately, turns you into a victim, someone who is helpless to respond or deal with the vicissitudes of the workplace. In today's competitive environment, this can lead to a layoff, or worse.

Don't choose victimhood when you can choose success. Being a principled person necessarily means that you believe your principles matter. Failure—especially unnecessary failure—means not only that you suffer but that the principles and values you care about, the work you care about, and the people you care about do not advance. While a principled person normally doesn't seek out a fight, he or she should not shrink from one when it's necessary.

Adapted from Enlightened Office Politics by Michael S. Dobson and Deborah S. Dobson. Copyright 2001 Michael and Deborah Singer Dobson. Used by permission of the publisher, AMACOM, Division of American Management Association. 

About the Author(s)

Michael S. Dobson is an author, consultant and popular seminar leader in project management, communications and personal success.
Deborah S. Dobson is vice president of human resources at GATX Terminals in Chicago. The Dobsons live in Chicago and are coauthors of Managing Up! (AMACOM 0-8144-7042-4).