The Bright Side of Office Politics

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I used to work pretty hard at managing upward—saying the same thing, gently, to my provost or president enough times to eventually hear those ideas come from them as though they’d just thought them up. You can take credit for the work, or you can get the work done.

From The Office to Dilbert to Parks and Rec, the comedy of office politics has developed its stock characters:

  • a preening, oblivious manager;
  • a scheming but insecure underling always on the lookout for self-advancement;
  • half a dozen colorful eccentrics who just keep their heads down but get dragged into things anyway; and
  • the well-meaning, heart-of-gold naif who acts as the audience’s surrogate, trying to do the right thing but never certain exactly how.

Not unlike Gilligan’s Island, in fact.

So, you know, wouldn’t it be nice if we could all just go in and do our jobs and not have to deal with all of this other stuff? Well, no, I actually think it’d be pretty awful. There are a handful of things that we can do on our own with no outside influence. Woodworking, for instance. Writing. Gardening. Those are all lovely things, but if we skew too strongly to only those practices, we become hermits, unwilling and unable to enter the fray of the interpersonal world.

Most of the things we do involve collective effort; we have to work with others in order to get them done. And since we don’t have USB cords going directly between brains, we all have slightly different definitions of the problem, and slightly different goals for its resolution, and slightly different work lives that we have to fit this collective problem into, and pretty soon the team is pulling in twelve different directions at once.

If we think of office politics as a competition to be won or lost, our workplace will rapidly become bitter and secretive. If we leave someone out of the decisionmaking, they’ll find a way to subtly resist the enterprise.

But (to reach back to my Lutheran upbringing), what if we saw office politics as a vessel for grace? As an opportunity to leave aside willfulness, to exercise gratitude, to offer generosity? What if we learned to say, regularly, thank you… good idea… go for it… let me help… what do you think? What if we didn’t always have to be the smartest person in the room? What if we didn’t always have to raise the subtle, oppositional nuance?

Every day, we all have the opportunity to turn down the snark-ometer. We have the opportunity to make someone else’s life a little easier. We have the opportunity to leave our little cubby and come out to see what the larger organization is up to. Office politics is inevitable any time there’s interpersonal work to be done; the tone of those politics, though, is under our control.