How to navigate office politics


This month, The Padfield Partnership celebrates its 15th birthday! I send my sincere thanks to you and all my loyal clients for the fun we have had throughout this time, and look forward to working with you in future. The next time you have a drink please think of me and accept my best wishes to you!

As you know, my monthly article include thoughts, insights and practical ideas about leadership from my clients and me. This article looks at office politics and suggests what you can do to minimise their negative impact. I hope you find this information useful and, as always, I welcome your feedback.

Defining ‘office politics’

“The use of power and social networking within organisations to achieve change that benefits the organisation or individuals within it…Individuals and groups may engage in office politics which can be highly destructive, as people focus on personal gains at the expense of the organisation.”
Source: Wikipedia

Many of us have heard of the Italian diplomat Italian diplomat, Niccolò Machiavelli: he is often quoted at work, i.e. “that is very Machiavellian behaviour” to describe political manoeuvring. Machiavelli (1469-1527), wrote The Prince based on his experience of unscrupulous politicians, which is still in print today! (See also Oliver James in Theories of Personality below.)

“Simply how power gets worked out on a practical day-to-day basis”
Polly Lebarre, The New Face of Office Politics

Theories of personality

Psychologist, Robert Hogan, observed three basic human needs that underlie workplace relationships. Understanding these helps explain why office politics occur:

  1. The need to get along, which promotes cooperation.
  2. The need to get ahead, which can result in power struggles.
  3. The need to find meaning, which the best organisations can fulfil.

He developed a leadership tool that identifies leadership strengths (the bright side of personality); potential derailers (the dark side of personality); and values (the inner core of who you are). This tool was developed based on the established Five Factor Personality model which has been developed by multiple researchers over time:

  • Emotional stability: the degree to which you experience the world as threatening and stressful
  • Extraversion: the degree to which you need attention and social interaction
  • Agreeableness: the degree to which you need pleasant and harmonious relationships
  • Conscientiousness: the degree to which you are willing to comply with conventional rules, norms and standards
  • Intellect/Openness to experience: the degree to which you need intellectual stimulation, chance and variety

(I’m certified to use the Hogan tool, so please contact me if you’d like to complete this and learn more about yourself.)

In addition, in his 2014 book Office Politics, Psychologist Oliver James identifies three personality traits to be of significance in office politics. He calls them the ‘dark triad’:

  • Psychopathy: impulsive, selfish, callous, remorseless, endures anti-social behaviour
  • Narcissism: grandiose, proud, egotistical, lacks empathy
  • Machiavellianism: manipulative, exploitative, self-interested, deceptive, disregards morality

If an individual’s personality includes the ‘dark triad’, then ‘agreeableness’ will be strongly absent.

So, we can see how personality affects behaviour at work and interferes with Hogan’s three human needs.

DOs and DON’Ts

The role of the leader is crucial in setting the tone and determining whether office politics are encouraged, perceived as acceptable, or minimised.

Here are some tips about what you can do as an individual or a leader.

Your behaviour/integrity

  • DO have a strong correlation between your words and actions. Do what you say you will. This builds reliability, credibility and trust
  • DO take ownership of issues. DON’T avoid issues or say it’s someone else’s responsibility
  • DO focus on what’s right for the business and consistently articulate it, especially in case of conflict between teams or individuals. Always bring the conversation back to this to create a common platform to build on. DON’T take sides (whether with senior people or your staff)
  • DO build a network of strong relationships with your stakeholders
  • DO think win:win. A collaborative and constructive style will help you influence and thrive in the long run. DON’T be competitive: winning at the expense of someone else only helps you in the short term
  • DO have clear and transparent communication. DON’T be closed and secretive.  DON’T gossip or talk behind people’s backs

Your emotions

  • DO remain constructive. Focus on what you CAN control or influence. DON’T complain about things you have no control over
  • DO carefully trust. The ability to identify who you can trust is a key component of Emotional Intelligence. DON’T be over-trusting or under-trusting
  • DO seek to understand before being understood*. This will help you realise that the other person probably has a positive intention, and enable you to see things from their perspective. Showing empathy is more likely to prevent them from becoming defensive and/or entrenched in their position. This in turn helps you build a constructive win:win plan based on the needs of the business and what you each need
  • DO remain objective. DON’T lose emotional control, get angry, humiliate others, shout, or get personal

The work

  • DO have a clear vision and strategy that everyone understands
  • DO set targets and measures. Reward people for delivering against these. Hold people accountable if they don’t. Be consistent for all staff. DON’T have favourites
  • DO have clear lines of authority that cover roles and responsibilities as well as how decisions get made.
    • A useful tool is RACI charting. Please contact me if you’d like more information about this
  • DO have clear processes

These tips link with previous articles that you might want to revisit:


Next month, we look at how to have courageous conversations.

If you found this information useful, please click the social media buttons below, to share a link to this article with your network, and let me know if you’d like more details about this topic.