Avoiding the pitfalls of office politics
Man is a political animal, so said Aristotle. The import of this is that wherever there is an assemblage of people, politics comes alive because jockeying becomes unavoidable. Therefore, politics is at play in the workplace because career progression is at stake. Career progression is the harbinger of money, power and influence. When any of these is challenged or threatened, there is no length to which people will not go to protect their interests. So, office politics is more real than many will like to admit.
What is politics?
Stripped of all adornments, politics is nothing but a struggle for resource control. Although politics could be a vehicle for rendering impactful service, its prize is the control over human and material resources which it bestows on the winner of the struggle. Conflict always goes hand in hand with resources for two reasons. One, it is unusual that there will be a convergence of opinions on the deployment of resources. The greed in some will make them reach out for more than their due. This will manifest in scheming, collaboration and horse trading to outwit others and get the better of them. The other reason is that resources are unlikely to be sufficient at any point in time. Therefore, people will very likely jostle to have a chance of getting the best out of the little that is available. This is why politics always seems to draw blood. In politics, one person’s gain is the other’s loss. It is the scheming that characterizes politics that confers on it the toga of a dirty venture. Politics cannot be devoid of scheming, checkmating, moves and counter-moves. Hence, politicking always leaves a string of casualties.
But politics is unavoidable in any human society. Politics is about leadership. It is about rendering transformational service to the people. It is about providing direction for a group or society. Without politics, there would be anarchy because there would not be a recognized body to which everyone can look for guidance or direction. So, the importance of politics cannot be overemphasized.
Politics and the office setting
The purpose of a workplace is value creation through service provision, not politicking. This should be ingrained in the mind of every serious career person. Politicking should be left to those in the C-Suite, the topmost officers of an organization. They do not have any choice, politicking comes with their terrain. Because they are in charge of resource allocation, they cannot avoid politicking. But others should deemphasize politics and concentrate on their core mandate of rendering service to their organizations. Many careers have been short-circuited because of political considerations. To every politician, either in the workplace or the polity, loyalty is critical. If a politician cannot trust an individual, the competencies the fellow brings to the table become secondary, he is dispensed with forthwith.
Human beings always have their preferences, biases, views and interests. So, in the workplace, officers will have their preferences among those in the struggle for the control of the organization’s resources. But it is best not to make this obvious in order not to vitiate one’s interest. Being tagged somebody’s person has its benefits but it is also fraught with dangers. Those with such tags usually lose out when their godfathers fall out of power.
Career-minded people need not be apolitical, rather they should be politically-conscious. Being oblivious of the politics of one’s environment can reduce one to a pawn in the hands of political lobbyists while being politically savvy positions one to make informed choices that can help career progression. So, it is not about shunning office politics but being aware of it without allowing it to jeopardize one’s interests.
Professor Ayobami Salami
Professor Ayobami Salami, formerly of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, is reputed as one of the nation’s leading lights in the field of Ecology and Environmental Studies. He rose through the academic ranks, heading vital centres and institutes of the university and was eventually appointed the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academics).
His joy must have been boundless when his name was announced by the governing council of the university as the vice chancellor to succeed the former vice chancellor, Professor Bamitale Omole, after the expiration of his tenure in June 2016. But his appointment generated furore on the campus as many interest groups rejected the appointment outright. What was the premise of their opposition to his appointment? Some of the groups claimed he was too close to Professor Omole.
He was perceived as being tied to the apron string of the former vice chancellor and would not be able to do anything without getting a clearance from Professor Omole. Although other issues were raised such as the governing council tweaking the process to make it easy for him to emerge as the best candidate, the real angst of those who protested was his affinity with Professor Omole.
Eventually, the protest in Ife got to Abuja and the Federal Government dissolved the governing council and asked the University’s Senate to use its internal mechanism to appoint an acting vice chancellor. Professor Anthony Elujoba of the Faculty of Pharmacy, who was seen as not belonging to any of the groups scheming for the vice chancellorship, was appointed the Acting Vice Chancellor. The government directed that the process of appointing a new vice chancellor should start all over again but it barred those who participated in the botch exercise from being considered for the position.
Professor Salami lost the Obafemi Awolowo University’s prime position, which was within reach not for lack of competence but because of his alliance. He would have had an easy ride to the headship of his alma mater if he had been conscious of the inherent dangers of office politics and had avoided making his alliance a public affair. The experience would have been an indelible dent on his career if not for his later appointment as the pioneer vice chancellor of The Technical University, Ibadan.
Avoiding the pitfalls of office politics
It is possible to stand firm and tall on the slippery ground of office politics by doing the following.
Avoid the lure of office politics
For many, the lure of office politics is the opportunity of riding on the crest of their godfathers’ success to climb high. While that is good for as long as it lasts, it is akin to riding on the back of a tiger. As John F. Kennedy, former President of the United States of America, said in his inaugural speech in 1961, “those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.” Those who rely on politicking to achieve their career objectives usually get consumed by the process that threw them up.
Be on top of your game
One fact that every career-minded person must not lose sight of is that the raison d’être for their employment is service provision. Therefore, doing that should be of far more importance than involvement in politics. To avoid becoming a victim of office politics, every career-minded person should consistently up his game and enhance his competence. He should be on top of his game. He should offer top quality service that cannot be wished away. If that is done, it does not matter which of the sides involved in the struggle for the control of the resources wins, he is sure to have a place in the organization.
But the workplace rule is fast changing and competence may not be enough as the new rule of engagement expects every employee to generate revenue. Combining competence with ability to generate revenue makes an employee a cash cow. No farmer sacrifices his cash cows.
Build strong relationships across boundaries
One factor of success in any endeavour is relationship. To thrive in the workplace in spite of politics, it is necessary to build strong relationships across boundaries. Having relationships across groupings in the workplace is a bulwark against ‘hostile takeover’ whenever there is a power shift as the new group will not consider such individual as an enemy. Care should, however, be taken not to be cast in the mould of a mole. This happens if there is any reason to doubt the sincerity of such relationships. In politics, as in the military, loyalty is not gradable. A person is either loyal or not loyal; 99 per cent loyalty is seen as 100 per cent disloyalty.
Don’t get emotional, stay on principles
Every relationship places a responsibility on one. There are times when the relationship that exists in the workplace makes certain demands that are antithetical to the ground rule. If such happens, it is dangerous to allow emotions have its way. Emotions usually becloud reasoning. Those who are given to emotions take momentary actions that they regret later. Do not sacrifice your career on the altar of emotional considerations. Don’t allow your emotion to run riot, always be guided by principles. Avoid taking actions that you will be unable to defend when nerves are calm and pressure is over. When emotion wants to put you in chains, free yourself with principles.
Be conscious, but don’t get involved
Some people try their best to steer clear of office politics and everything it represents. While it is safe to avoid involvement in it, knowing and identifying the political groupings in the system as well as what they stand for is good. The essence of this is to guide the conduct of the career-minded person. If one knows neither the political groupings nor what they represent, the likelihood of conflict of interests is high and that could be costly.
Office politics is a reality but while those who get engrossed in it get swept away, those who ignore it get ignored.