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Article by Mohan Babu


Navigating office politics

While many techies do not have the stomach for office politics, this does not preclude the prospect of them being at the receiving end of political games played by co-workers, says MOHAN BABU

A topic most management courses and training sessions skim over is the one that drains most of the energies out of employees and managers: it is office politics. Not many of us are immune to office politics, gossip and the “informal circuit,” and individuals who spend eight or ten hours a day in a working group tend to develop a subculture of their own. As part of the subculture there is a need among individuals to be recognised, bonding with peers, and of course looking forward to promotions, kudos and brownie points from bosses. Individuals try to stand out from their peers, sometimes using unorthodox means. Cartoonists like Dilbert have generated a cult like following by evangelizing office politics and the idiosyncrasies in the workplace.

Politics, favouritism, sucking up to influential people is not something alien to the working climate alone. Most of us get used to it right from the school and college days where the “teachers pet” always bags the higher scores, gets plum assignments or the school bully who gets his way by coercion. The same attitudes are carried to the work environments as individual grow up and join organisations.

It therefore comes as a surprise that a lot of techies don’t have the stomach for office politics. However, this does not preclude the possibility of them ending up at the receiving end of political games played by colleagues and co-workers. By remaining “geeky” they further alienate themselves from the sub-culture around them. They tend to mistakenly think that they will be recognised by burying their head in work and consistently producing results. However, this is not the case because of a number of complex factors. For instance, many people tend to forget that managers and bosses are human too and come with the same moods, idiosyncrasies and quirks as the rest of us. Some of them are highly technical but many survive mainly on their gift of gab. Managers sometimes tend to succumb to the same smooth-talk and salesmanship by employees who trying one-upmanship on their colleagues.

Office politics takes different forms. The most common being the rumour mill, a.k.a. water-cooler gossip where talk about impending changes, discussion on hearsay, organisational changes, what someone overheard, etc, are discussed in detail. No topic is out of bounds in a rumour mill and it can range from work related topics to personal gossip about affairs, delicate issues and problems. Hardly anyone in an organisation is immune to being the butt of gossip: from the CEO at the top, down to the mailroom clerk, everyone is a fair target. Many organisations have begun to realise the potential of such gossip circuits existing in the organisation and try to leverage it to manage informal communication and information dissemination.

Technology has also contributed its bit to the sustenance of gossip circuits in organisations. The practice of forwarding of e-mail containing gossip, titbits on organisational issues or other personal matters is widely prevalent across companies of all sizes. Sometimes e-mail exchanged in “confidence” between two parties’ surfaces at inopportune times, causing acute embarrassment, or even legal headaches. This is especially true of those exchanging mail about a company’s confidential information or gossip. A recent study conducted by IT research firm Gartner found that at least 34 percent of business e-mail is unnecessary and that 30 percent of the time business users spend managing their e-mail is spent on messages that contain no business value.

If you can’t beat them, join them?

The workplace is a social organisation. Therefore, it is hard to fight the scourge of gossip and politics. Individuals need to learn to live and work with it. Working with politics and gossip means trying to understand the nuances of dealing with people, learning to snap malicious gossip and actions at the root and of course being a part of the gossip circuit to be keenly aware of what is happening. This cannot be achieved by ignoring politics, but by being aware of and in some instances, a part of it. For instance, individuals need to realise that they are accountable and will make mistakes on their road to success.

Learning from these mistakes is far more likely to happen when people help each other out, and do so when they most need it. Individuals can also try to build a culture that values everyone and places them at the heart of the department, and company.

One can begin by encouraging open and blame-free debate within the immediate team, draw out everyone’s contributions, their hopes, fears and ideas for the future. Some senior managers try to get into such gossip circuits by practicing MBWA (Management by Wandering Around) techniques where they chat with their subordinates informally on all topics and try to get a “gut feel” for the mood of the organisation.

As organisations and workgroups become international, individuals need to learn the subtleties of cross-cultural communication, especially as the forms of informal communication across cultural and national boundaries may vary. For instance, in the US, gossip can take the form of small-talk as one waits of the office elevator or a cup of coffee or as a filler during project meetings.

Such small-talk may contain loaded hints or information that one could observe and use. For instance if the boss talks about his impending week-long holiday, he is also hinting that there will be an opportunity for someone to fill in his shoes when he is away and is trying to find that temporary replacement.

The bottomline is clear. Much as we loath office politics and gossip, we need to learn to live with and even benefit from it.





About the Author

  • A Bio and profile of the author, Mohan Babu, can be found at his homepage
  • Mohan has authored a book on Offshoring and Outsourcing (Publisher McGraw Hill, India), a link to which can be found here
  • Mohan has also authored an Online book on "Life in the US," available for free download.
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    ©Mohan Babu: All Rights Reserved 2005

    Mohan Babu is an international consultant trying to find the ‘sweet spot’ where IT meets business. E-mail: mohan He is also the author of a recent book on "Offshoring IT Services"

    All rights are reserved. Mohan Babu ("Author") hereby grants permission to use, copy and distribute this document for any NON-PROFIT purpose, provided that the article is used in its complete, UNMODIFIED form including both the above Copyright notice and this permission notice. Reproducing this article by any means, including (but not limited to) printing, copying existing prints, or publishing by electronic or other means, implies full agreement to the above non-profit-use clause. Exceptions to the above, such as including the article in a compendium to be sold for profit, are permitted only by EXPLICIT PRIOR WRITTEN CONSENT of Mohan Babu. 

    Disclaimer: This document represents the personal opinions of the Author, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of the Author's employer, nor anyone other than the Author. This Article was originally published in Express Computers


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