Thoughts on Office Politics

I have now worked long enough now to have some data about politics — by which

I mean people advancing their careers or agendas by means other than merit and contribution — Ben Horowitz

Initially, I found the behaviour insane — taking credit for other people’s work; propping up oneself at the expense of co-workers or a project or the companies well being; generating a crisis, letting it boil over and riding in to save the day. I hated it.

I wondered how people who did not have particularly excellent skills at their jobs have such powerful positions — I also saw how the effect of political machinations demoralize a stellar team. This behaviour had a compounding effect — if a workmate engaged in it and got their way, more aggressive employees would imitate the behaviour. The less aggressive ones would generally begin to look for new jobs or lower their output to the bare minimum.

I had a workmate who once told me “you know we can’t work all the time — kazi tufanye lakini pia tupige siasa ama tutamalizwa [work but we must politic as well lest ‘they’ finish us — by ‘they’ I believed he meant the more political people] . I thought it was funny back then — but then again I was inexperienced with the way the world worked.

I had come from University — it was an inverse universe — you could not take credit for your classmates work, or easily cause them to fail while you passed, or influence all the lecturers to look past your average results and give you a better grade than you deserve — that universe was a deterministic one — ruled by calculus [the mathematics of certainty] — the new one however was a probabilistic [the mathematics of randomness, uncertainty].

I theorized that someone would discover “that they [highly political] don’t do that much quality work and someone would see through their house of cards” — mostly because I was not good at politics and naturally wanted go back to my world of calculus.

Now that I have data, I can safely discard this expectation — they rarely get discovered, they continue to excel and survive many near death experiences. Their companies and workmates generally have a net loss productivity — I have found this aspect hard to quantify.

I want to live in a world of calculus as much to the extent that I can. A lot of people also want to live this way — trust that any system they work in is deterministic — if they do their jobs and exceed expectations good things will follow that are positively related to their input.

From my data, the degree to which a particular job / department is a science is inversely related to the chance of politics in that job / department. So I find that engineering departments are less political than say marketing or business development ones — what the latter do is less of a science and more of art.

Can a company without politics exist? It is said that where there are people there are politics — but given the very strict definition of politics above (not the art of influencing people towards certain goals) I think it is possible to minimize it.

It has been said that all political behaviour begins with the CEO (often accidentally) — and that it is possible to minimize this through a set of contrarian management techniques — I believe they would lower politics to acceptable levels.

I think universities should prepare their students for this — for most it is rude shock and few know how to live in it. In any company, one should come to understand the power (legitimate and not), who is related to who, who works well with who and not, who broke up with who, who is dating who, who wants what position — the people, their motivations, their world view, their morality, their ambitions. This context is important.

At times, I still find myself living in a probabilistic world, I am still learning how to live it in.

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