It’s been a little while since my last reader question post, hasn’t it? Well, let’s do something about that today.
Today’s subject is office politics. I’m pretty much always game to talk about this subject, as regular readers know. Except, rather than dissecting them in-situ, I’ll talk about the idea of companies avoid them altogether.
The Reader Question: A Company without Office Politics?
I’ll talk about it because the reader question asks about it.
Is it too naive to hope that there is that (perhaps small to improve the odds) company out there where a group of technical people work together to solve problems without all the politics and back stabbing? Is politics unavoidable? Is it human nature? I am still hopeful… Part of me thinks when it comes to companies we are still in Feudalism and time will bring about better forms of governance.
There is actually kind of a series of questions in there, and I hope to touch on all of them. But it really comes down to a matter of defining office politics, for better or for worse, and then seeing if they must exist within a company. And, if they must, is that okay? Or must it be an ipso facto problem?
What Is Office Politics? And What is Politics, for that Matter?
Let’s get down to brass tacks here, and I mean way down to brass tacks. And I’m not doing this to be pedantic, but rather because it’s important to frame the discussion. First, a definition of politics, courtesy of Wikipedia.
Politics is the process of making decisions that apply to members of a group.
Do you see now why I think it’s important to return to this definition? The word politics carries an amazing amount of baggage in the way of connotations: governmental, interpersonal, etc. But, at its core, it’s about making decisions that affect participants in a group. The baggage comes from the means and nature of those decisions, as well as how the members receive them.
I’ve often quipped myself that you have politics anytime you assemble more than 2 people. And, though I’ve often meant this to suggest that group size 3 is where complex persuasion begins, it applies to the simple, literal definition here as well.
- With a single person making decisions, there is no group.
- With two people, you either have consensus or stalemate in all cases, so there is no systematic means of making decisions (absent unequal distribution of votes).
- But with three people, you have the means for systemic group decision making.
What, then, is office politics? Well, let’s mark the wikipedia definition up slightly.
Office politics is the process of making decisions that apply to members of a group in an office setting.
The Idea of Avoiding Office Politics is a Non-Starter
Through that lens, you can see that the idea of avoiding office politics is an impossibility. What you probably mean is ways of avoiding toxic (or even unpleasant) office politics. I especially believe this to be the case, given the specific mention of “back-stabbing.”
To find a company without office politics would be to find a company that made no decisions. And that wouldn’t be a company for very long.
Now, I can empathize with the desire to avoid office politics, even in a fairly benign setting. I tend to do a lot of lone wolf work, and I’m not really big on democratic groups or consensus. In school, my two preferred approaches to group work, in order, were “don’t worry, I’ll just do everything,” and “okay, you guys do everything.” So I get it.
But even for an avowed mercenary and lifestyle designer like myself, at least some collaboration is unavoidable, as are companies. And so, politics are unavoidable. But I’ll go even further and say that they’re neither inscrutable nor as onerous as they may seem on the surface.
So while there are no companies out there without politics, there are companies without toxic politics. So let’s look about how you find those. And let’s do that by looking at heuristics for avoiding bad, stupid, or toxic politics.