Can office politics make or break your career?

Imagine working hard and positioning yourself well for a promotion at work. You even went the extra mile and mentored new teammates — empowering them to become self-sufficient and competent employees.

But in the face of your clear effort, nothing pays off and you are suffering from a stagnant career. This is exactly what is happening to Innocent, a programme’s officer at a non-government organisation.

He can’t fathom how colleagues who barely perform are climbing high in ranks, leaving him in a position he has been holding for close to 10 years.

Recently, he realised that what he was overlooking — office politics — was what his colleagues were actually using as a tool for their success. They had mastered the operations of the organisation and plotted their way to the top.

In most cases, office politics is perceived as dirty and manipulative because it involves pursuing benefits through unfair means. However, professionals highlight that a lack of attention to what’s happening in the workplace can have a serious impact on one’s career.

Office politics contains actions and behaviour involving competition for status or power in the workplace. It has also been described as ‘simply how power gets worked out on a practical, day-to-day basis.’

Whether you ignore this or not, how an organisation operates will certainly affect your career, says Boris Ujeneza, a bank teller. And with this, he mostly means the unwritten rules of the company.

“There is no way you can negate the reality of office politics because it is in almost every organisation. It is, therefore, skill employees need to be able to survive in a workplace,” he says.

He, however, explains that one doesn’t have to involve themselves in bad schemes, rather, endeavour to understand how these affairs work.

Jackline Mbabazi, a junior legal consultant at Women’s Link Worldwide, says office politics is like any other kind of politics, with people trying to gain and assert influence in the work environment.

“The politics can get real messy but I don’t think it’s avoidable. To avoid it would mean no networking or creating social relationships at work, being unambitious, being static and not seeking self-improvement and promotion. I don’t think anyone wants that,” she notes.

However, Mbabazi says that the thing she looks out for is bad politics; the politics of spreading rumours, gossiping about others, false accusations, taking credit for other people’s work, or doing anything to undermine them or jeopardise their career or life in general.

“See, in politics, everyone is trying to advance some interests, and sometimes, they do so at the expense of others. This is the bad politics I mentioned. You can imagine what rumours, false claims and a bad reputation can do to someone’s career,” she says.

She is, however, of the view that since office politics translates into what we do at work, who we talk to or listen to, who we know or want to know, what we know and how we pass the information on, it is something we can’t avoid.

“I think the best way to handle it is to play it clean. As an individual, think about your company or organisational goals first before your personal goals, don’t be over-ambitious, don’t belittle anyone or use anyone as a means to an end — that end being your agenda, don’t engage in rumour-mongering and don’t believe everything you hear without proving it,” Mbabazi counsels.

On the part of the company, there should be regulations and ethics to be followed. These should set a standard that prevents people from practising bad office politics, the violation of which attracts a penalty, she adds.

Solange Ayanone, a project coordinator at PAX PRESS, says such attitudes definitely have an effect on the productivity of the employee who plays politics.

“Because his or her attention is focused on this more than on their work, there is a possibility of losing the job,” she says.

Also, some people access their position using office politics. But the problem comes when they can’t deliver or perform, Ayanone points out.

“Using gossip or other bad behaviours to get ahead at work is very dangerous. It is hard for people around you to be collaborative. But also, the employee who doesn’t deserve the position will not be trusted by the colleagues, and this affects team spirit. It also creates a lack of motivation among other staff,” she says.

The best way to handle this, according to Ayanone, is to set ethical rules and make sure that all employees are aware of this.

“Cultivate organisational behaviour. Create official channels to express views by employees and give them time to interact. But also, avoid emotions when you have to make decisions. Be objective and professional.”

Power and influence

According to Augustin Rugundana, an official at a government institution, office politics has effects on personal career and an organisation’s performance.

He defines office politics as the use of power and social networking within an organisation to achieve changes that benefits an organisation or individuals. In due process, this can affect personal career, either positively or negatively, depending on how it is done.

And with this, Rugundana emphasises that though there are many negative outcomes of office politics, it can, on the other hand, serve to benefit the company.

He says social networking and engagement between employees and bosses may lead to enhanced service delivery, by being on the same page on the organisation’s mission, and understanding equally what everyone is expected to do.

“Competition of power may culminate the high performance of employees since every individual may strive to excel and distinguish himself/herself from the rest. Furthermore, office politics may again spark the individual innovation which may in-turn affect positively the growth of the organisation because it encourages utilisation of employees’ potentials to the fullest and paves way for employees’ full participation,” the official says.

Where office politics is done positively, Rugundana says it can spur peer learning and review with intention of improving one’s performance, something that can help one adopt and adapt to situations as far as this dynamic world is concerned.

However, where office politics is done without the intention of realising the organisation’s mandate, it may have devastating effects on individuals, leadership and the organisation’s growth.

“Some employees may choose to associate with bosses as a strategy of competing with those perceived as a threat to the personal promotion of status. In this strategy, those who may get access to bosses may undermine fellow employees by exposing their weakness with the ultimate goal of tarnishing their mage to lose credibility in front of bosses. In this gossiping process, the truth is that a number of victims may be registered,” Rugundana says. 

Where there is a struggle for power through survival for the fittest by eliminating the unfit, Rugundana says this can create a bad working environment, hinder employees’ teamwork spirit, hence undermining the overall performance of an organisation.

“Once a lot of time is wasted in personal ends and chaos, this diverts employees from focusing on the organisation’s mission and creates unnecessary enmity. It is important to mention that in most cases, this strategy is employed by incompetent people to hoodwink bosses on the genuine reason of their presence; as put by Eleanor Roosevelt that, “great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.”

Rugundana goes on to highlight that when bosses resort to getting information from improbable sources/gossip mongers, it can influence them to take wrong interventions due to ‘half information’.

“Negative competition by use of networking or associating with bosses may confuse the management theory of reward and punishment. It can also destroy the culture of professionalism among employees because some may focus on what appeases bosses to sustain ‘the bread’ than doing the job in favour of what is stipulated in the company’s vision,” he says.

The will of bosses to champion positive competitions between employees can result in the growth of the organisation. This can go hand-in-hand with their capacity to cross-check information, undermining the culture of those who would wish to survive at the expense of others and deepening the culture of rewarding actions, not words. Furthermore, evaluation should consider who does what, for what intention, for whose benefits, rather than rewarding who is good in front of the boss or charming stereotype among colleagues, Rugundana adds.

“I implore managers to set rewarding selection procedures that would take into account personal effort, resilience, professionalism, innovations but above all the clients’ centred service appreciation feedback.”

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WHAT'S THE BEST WAY TO CREATE A HEALTHY WORKING ENVIRONMENT?

For me, the best working environment is where there are high motivation and happiness, teamwork and a listening boss, capable of segmenting employees in categories depending on their abilities and how productive and efficient they are.

On top of that, good communication between a boss and the employees is essential for a positive working environment, a good working environment is one that also considers everyone’s ideas. Each employee is part of the company, hence, should be
given same respect.

Arafat Mugabo, Journalist

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I think it all comes down to creating an environment that is not tense, one that creates a comfortable space for employees. But also it is important to keep the team connected; team-work builds a comfy working environment.

Pelagie Uwihoreye, Student

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I think it is important to provide your employees with appropriate working days and at the same time give them days to rest. Also, offering a salary increment, availing workshops help to increase productivity. Offering healthy schemes for your employees, or small loans in case of an emergency can be helpful.

Sam Mugisha, Accountant

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A healthy workplace environment is ideal when it comes to maintaining positive outcomes in a stressful atmosphere, one of the ways to create this is by offering lunch breaks such that employees get time to rest. Another way is to provide comfortable offices, with comfortable furniture and working equipment. Respect your employees, listen to their problems and complaints.

Phrister Nakato, Comedian

editorial@newtimesrwanda.com

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