Landscape of Office Politics

Jul 03, 2020


As an observer of vicious politics, I may need to be peeled off the ceiling. But, remember, office politics (born of scarcity) can be used for good!

First, let’s start with the premise that not all office politics are bad… Ok, if you are like me, you gonna want an explanation! In his Harvard Business Review article titled, The 4 Types of Organizational Politics, Michael Jarrett suggests that office politics, “when deployed effectively, can help the company meet its strategic goals and live up to its values.” As an observer of destructive politics, I may need your help peeling me off the ceiling before we are done here. So, let me try to unpack this concept for the benefit of us all!

Whatever the situation, it is important to understand that the root cause of political activities are often scarce resources (including time pressures), social and structural inequalities, and individual personal motivations. ~ Michael Jarrett, Change Management Consultant

Jarrett acknowledges that many leaders “react with distaste to the idea of being a savvy organizational politician.” However, these tactics are totally normal and can be used to “improve personal or organizational interests.” I can already feel my eyebrow twitching– anyone else? To help us map out the political terrain, Jarrett offers the Four Metaphors of Organizational Politics (you gotta see his grid: imagine Formality on the x-axis increasing from left to right; and Influence on the y-axis shifting from individual to organizational). Here are the four metaphors:

  1. The Weeds (Informal Leadership / Individual Level): This type of influence is comprised of casual networks of individuals. In The Weeds, power resides with the frontline staff who effectively determine what gets done and what doesn’t get done. Navigate this terrain by aligning with the brokers— those who lead without sitting in the corner office.
  2. The Rocks (Formal Leadership / Individual Level): Power occurs between individuals and leverages formal authority in the form of “title, role, expertise, or access to resources” to um, encourage (I want to say manipulate here, but remember, this can be used for good…) certain responses or behaviors. Navigate this terrain by “drawing on formal sources of power, rather than fighting against them.”
  3. The High Ground (Formal Leadership / Organizational Level): These political activities utilize the official corporate rules, policy guidelines, structures and procedures. This type of bureaucracy uses both sanctions and incentives to mold behavior. Navigate this terrain by publicly endorsing activities that enable productivity and innovation.
  4. The Woods (Informal Leadership / Organizational Level): In this terrain, influence relies on the “implicit norms, hidden assumptions, and unspoken routines”. It takes consistency to establish habits governed by the unsaid and courage to evaluate silent expectations. Navigate this terrain by overtly challenging or confirming the value of veiled traditions.

Ok, I made it through all four terrains with only a twitching eyebrow! Political capital (favors, power, resources, and even silent expectations) can be leveraged for good or misused. Leaders from all quadrants of the political landscape must align with brokers of informal and informal authority through official efforts and hidden assumptions. Look around, what is the political landscape near you? What positive efforts could be made to reinforce the beneficial behaviors?

Source: The 4 Types of Organizational Politics (Harvard Business Review), by Michael Jarrett.

by Michelle Sugerman • Leading Synergies, LLC • © All Rights Reserved

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