The Organizational Cost of Office Politics

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By  Lawrence B. MacGregor Serven

Office politics take a personal toll on all of us. You probably aren’t immune. While the impact on your feelings during the workday might prompt you to want to put an end to office politics, your organization most likely isn’t ready to do anything about it.

It needs a reason. To motivate management to diminish politicking, it needs to see the cost to the organization as a whole.

There is a business case for making the necessary changes to reform office politics where you work. Consider: the estimated productivity loss because of stress-related factors is more than $100 billion in the United States alone. While that statistic itself is alarming, most companies will not be moved until they truly understand the connection between politics and performance.

After the 1986 Challenger explosion, NASA launched an investigation to determine its cause. The resulting testimony of the scientists and engineers who worked on the space shuttle is, in a word, chilling. The testimony showed some people who worked closely on the project had been worried about the craft’s worthiness. Others just felt that it shouldn’t be launched. However, those interviewed never spoke up because they feared the political ramifications of doing so. They felt that the program needed to look successful and a delay would ruin that image.

While many people could have suggested stopping the launch, nobody wanted to face the personal ramifications for doing so. Such a call would not have been grounds for dismissal, but it would have been “career limiting,” nonetheless.

Do you feel the same kind of pressure to make your organization look good, no matter what? For politically dominant workplaces, the kind of influence is, of course, all too familiar. Fortunately, the associated costs are rarely as high as they were with the Challenger disaster, but these workplaces will suffer from a costly performance gap.

Living Up to Potential
Every company has a gap between actual performance and potential performance. The level at which its workers could perform is almost always higher. Having said that, for exceptionally well-run companies, this gap is small or almost inconsequential. They’ve essentially closed the gap and are operating at peak performance. That ability is what makes them so admired. For the remaining 90 percent of all organizations, this gap is significant. Working to close the performance gap is the only thing that will bring wealth and success to the company and its shareholders (or stakeholders, for not-for-profit organizations). That’s something any organization should care about.

Office politics—or the enemy within that creates a drag on organizational effectiveness—can cause a portion (sometimes a large portion) of the performance gap. How? It can undermine trust, stifle innovation, drive turnover, distort communications, corrode joy and pride in work and, most of all, lead to bad decision making.

Decision Making in a Politicized Workplace
Do office politics improve the decision-making process or retard it? We believe that it is a crippling force that inhibits an organization from being consistently profitable over time by undermining the decision-making process.

Every business is based on a chain of activities. Customer needs are identified, products or services are developed and delivered to meet those needs, bills are sent out and collected, and so on. Likewise, employees make dozens of business decisions in the chain every day.

While some managers might value their employees’ gut feelings and intuitions, these feelings still need to be supported by data and a compelling business case. In a well-run organization, facts and principles are worth more than titles and personalities. What gets people ahead is looking for ways to work smarter, faster and better. Managers take an active role in gathering and disseminating information, developing strategies and plans for measuring results. You’ll see people acting in the organization’s best interests, with which their own personal interests are purposefully aligned. Not surprisingly, these companies often win and reward their shareholders with an upward-trending stock price.

Look inside a politicized workplace, and you’ll see people spending their time on something other than upholding the company’s best interests. Each person on the organization chart is busy transforming his or her position into a private fiefdom, with each manager thinking only of his own piece of turf and almost nobody thinking of what’s best for the company as a whole.

The Individual View
Now that we’ve examined the organizational impact of office politics, or the enemy within, let’s briefly return to the impact of office politicking on individual workers. Here is what we have found.

The more politicized work becomes, the less responsible workers become. Instead, they grow psychologically disconnected from their work and learn to work just for their paycheck. They rarely put in an extra effort and stop taking risks and thinking creatively. Thus, they lose any personal ownership of their work or the results of that work. When they feel as if they’re juggling between conflicting priorities—those of the company, their bosses and themselves—they approach work by just doing what they’re told and hoping for a promotion.

When managers lose their sense of commitment, they begin to rationalize that they are working in a company large enough to hide and absorb numerous mistakes. They don’t have to correct them. Their job simply becomes a means to something that lies outside of the company. Although the company wants people to commit, they see little to which they can commit themselves.

In a politicized environment, people learn to worry about their jobs, not the business. Over time, they become numb, less aware and not alert. Their problem-solving potential erodes.

So, it should be clear that office politics must be addressed as a management concern. Ultimately, an organization is only as good as the decisions its people make. Anything, including office politics that diminishes or obstructs their ability to make effective decisions must be remedied for a company to succeed.

This article is excerpted, with permission of the publisher, from The End of Office Politics as Usual by Lawrence B. MacGregor Serven. The publisher is AMACOM, AMA’s book division. Copyright, Lawrence G. MacGregor Serven.

About the Author(s)

Lawrence B. MacGregor Serven is founder and principal of The Buttonwood Group, Canaan, Connecticut.