The Potholes of Office Politics


A couple of months ago, I was driving along a well-traveled road here in town when my headlights fell upon a large pool of standing water. The little boy in me still loves splashing in puddles, whether on foot or in my car. I smiled at the thought of creating a huge spray. Unfortunately, the harmless puddle of standing water was actually a large pothole. What I thought was going to be a fun splash turned into a blown tire and bent rim. GRRRRR.

As business analysts, we encounter these water-filled potholes all too often. They’re called office politics. We are tasked with creating solutions based on analysis of data and information available to us, but sometimes the outcomes of our work is clouded. What we think is a harmless request for information turns into weeks or months of drama and accusations and innuendo. The stakeholders may have other agendas. They have conflicting interests. They have personality issues. In other words, they have reasons for making sure you don’t succeed.

What happens when we’re suddenly faced with a deep pothole instead of a friendly puddle of standing water? Two of the usual reactions to unexpected office politics are fight or flight. In other words, we either clinch our fists and gear up for battle, or we run with our tail tucked between our proverbial legs. However, there’s another alternative. We are, after all, business analysts. How about treating our office politics conflicts like a process to be analyzed and solved?

The process is fairly easy to remember: GUST. It’s as simple as:

  • Figure out the GAME being played

  • UNDERSTAND the players and their motives

  • Plan a STRATEGY based on the information available

  • Then TAKE ACTION based on the strategy.

Let’s start with the game. Just as in sports, there’s a “game ball” which is being manipulated toward a goal. At the heart of every office politics conflict, there is a point of manipulation, which tends to fall into one of three categories: Resources, Information, or People.

Resources are fairly tangible and straightforward: budgets, space, furniture, computers, office supplies, equipment. In our current economy, many people are being forced to do more with less.

The information game ball takes many forms. In requirements gathering, this simple task can become seriously derailed if somebody chooses to use information as a game ball, by withholding or changing data needed to make sound business decisions. Information can also be manipulated in the form of tampering with others’ perceptions of a project or another person.

The “people” game ball looks at relationships and power. In TV reality shows, we watch as people form alliances to further their own causes. Manipulating people may also take the form of avoidance. How often have you (or others) been “innocently” left off an email distribution? If you can identify the game ball of office politics, you are already way ahead of many office politicians. The game ball is at the core of the conflict, so you need to know what problem you are trying to solve.

Understanding the players is the next step in diagnosing your situation. Most of the time, the motives are relatively easy to understand just by observing behaviors; however, you may have to go into “requirements elicitation” mode and play detective to figure out why an individual is acting or doing or saying something. I’ve joked with professional colleagues that I’m part anthropologist. I love observing cubicle-dwellers in their natural habitat. Watch your target in meetings:

  • How does he or she behave?
  • How do others behave toward them?
  • What is the body language in the room?
  • How does the tone and atmosphere change when they enter?
  • How are their offices decorated?
  • What sorts of things appear to be important to them?
  • What is their word choice?

As an advisor for, my task is to read letters from professionals on various office politics situations and provide workable solutions. Somebody asked me how I was able to pull out so much information from the letters. To use Malcolm Gladwell’s term from his book, Blink, I’ve had to learn to “thin slice.” I have to derive information from the letter-writer’s tone, word choice, level of detail, and cadence to draw some conclusions. Most of the time, I’m correct in my assessment (much to the pleasure of my editor and the letter-writer). But I also have to make sure I don’t let my own perceptual filters get in the way. One time I answered a letter from the perspective of my own male perceptions and views; the problem was that the issue surrounded a group of women who couldn’t get along in the office. It was pointed out to me that male perceptual filters and female interpersonal issues don’t always coincide.

To further understand the motives of the players, there are six general forces at play on the game ball(s) of office politics:

  • Chain: The motivation here is to bring two things together which wouldn’t have been before. Merging departments, budgets, projects or any other two game balls to achieve a goal is the aim.

  • Stain: The goal for this approach is to smear or sabotage one of the game balls. It may be through character assassination or sabotage, but somebody wants one of the game balls worse off than it was before.

  • Maintain: The poster child for the status quo does not like change. Their ambition is to keep the game balls in exactly the same form as they were in the past.

  • Contain: This is the black hole of office politics. A person using a contain strategy hoards every game ball they can get. This is kingdom building at its worst. The problem is that there are no outputs to justify all of the inputs. Micromanagement is a form of containment.

  • Drain: Generally directed at a specific person, the general motivation is to strip away as much as possible from this person, and everything is fair game: direct reports, subordinates, projects, and credibility. You don’t really care who gets it as long as it’s taken away.

  • Gain: The flip side of drain, this is also about a transfer of resources. Unlike the hoarding mentality of contain, you don’t mind if others have game balls, too. You just want more. You don’t care where the resources, information, or people come from either. You’ll take from anybody as long as it furthers your career.

As you can see by the chart, all of these motivations are forces pulling at the various game balls. Each is a form of manipulation; however, each one does have a place in playing office politics.

Now it is time to shift the mindset from detective to mechanic. If you have identified the game ball and understand the players and their motivations better, you can then move into the solutioning side of your analysis. The strategy phase is the most complex. Think of it as office politics prototyping. You have to figure out what you want your solution to be, your approach to getting there, and the resources you will need to accomplish your solution. For example, do you have a paper-trail or some evidence to support your cause?

One of the worst things you can do as an office politician is to go into battle unarmed. Gather emails, status reports, phone logs, project deliverables, and memos to demonstrate to the other stakeholders you have done your research and deserve the credibility. You also need to determine your approach – do you need to be overt and lay all your cards out on the table early or covert and wait for the last possible dramatic moment before unleashing your “aha” revelation on the rest of the world. During this phase, allow yourself to do some visualization or role playing with other trusted colleagues.

Finally, it is time to take action.

Do you have others in your corner supporting you and watching your back? Have you done a gut check to make sure your own motivations and passions are in the right place? Do you have your eye on the prize and keep your outcome in your sights? Have you prepared for failure in case things do not go as you expect? There are times when the action to be taken is no action at all, not by running away, but by doing an emotional and social cost-benefit to determine if the ends justify the means. Stephen Covey calls this win-win or no-deal. I’ve fired myself from projects because I realized that walking away was the best course of action for everybody involved. It’s not a defeat.

Solving office politics conflicts takes practice. Each of the four elements of GUST takes years to master. As a business analyst, you will experience office politics many times over the course of your career. By learning to address it as a process, you will avoid the surprising potholes that will blow the tires out of your analysis projects.

Author: Timothy L Johnson, PMP is Chief Accomplishment Officer of Carpe Factum, Inc. (Latin for “Seize the Accomplishment”). He has 20 years of experience helping individuals and organizations achieve their critical accomplishments through project management and process improvement efforts. His clients include Harley-Davidson, Wells Fargo, Principal Financial Group, ING, and Teva Neuroscience. He is an Adjunct Professor in the College of Business and Public Administration at Drake University. He is the author of two books; his third is due out by the end of 2009. His home is Des Moines, Iowa.

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Clausid posted on Monday, June 8, 2009 9:10 AM
Great article! Working for a large corporation many of these techniques could prove to be quite beneficial. The organized approach is what strikes me as what most people are missing when navigating through the political battlefield. Thanks for the article.
Dave Hodgman posted on Monday, June 8, 2009 8:38 PM
Nice article. Can I suggest that you might want to approach office politics with GUSTO. The final piece is Observing the outcome of your actions which usually result in valuable lessons and are often a factor in the next game.
posted on Wednesday, July 8, 2009 1:42 PM
I agree, there are times when one needs to decide whether to fight the battle or walk away. The 'GUSTO' greatly helps to make that distinction.

P.S. 'GUSTO' is a nice catch-phrase.
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