Savvy and Skillful: a new look at office politics

Office workers making mock of their colleague

By Adrian Furnham

Until recently the concept of office politics was exclusively associated with dirty tricks and Machiavellian manipulation. But recently psychologists using the concept of political savvy and political skill have noted that managers can be politically aware and astute as well as behave ethically to achieve goals. The savvy manager is personally successful and held in high regard by their staff and the organisation. Moreover it is possible to define and measure political skill to determine where personal strength and limitations lie and where therefore to concentrate developmental practices. The paper ends with a description of six strategies to increase political awareness.


Politics is a bad word. We have national politics and local politics, but we also have office politics. Office politics seem to be a catch-all, supermarket trolley of wickedness. “He plays politics all the time”; “Office politics caused the failure”; “She was only promoted because of office politics”.
If you unpack the concept of politics you get a long list of negative words: Manipulation, “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine”, Looking out for #1, Destructiveness, Covert Under-The-Table Deals, Backstabbing, One-Upmanship, Deceitfulness, Turf Battles, Petty Personal Squabbles, Back-Room Decisions, Power Plays, Behind-The-Scenes Manoeuvring, Brownnosing, Hidden Agendas, and Dirty Tricks.

Office politics is exclusionary. It is about processes, procedures and decisions that are not meant to be scrutinised.
What are the key features of the concept? First perhaps is the secrecy, the covert agendas, the under-handedness of it all. Politics conducted in smokey rooms, behind closed doors, in private clubs or in the golf course. There are the insiders and the outsiders; players and the pawns. Those in the know and those in the dark. Office politics is exclusionary. Office politics is about processes, procedures and decisions that are not meant to be scrutinised. Politics is about opaqueness not transparency.
Second, there is impression management. Another word for this may be hypocrisy. Office politicians (all unelected) speak with forked tongue. The clever ones understand the difference between sins of omission and commission. The others just dissimulate. What you see, hear and read is not what you get. Internal communications (except those carefully encrypted) are half-truths, little more than management propaganda. Office politics are about censorship; about disguise.
Third, office politics is about self-interest. Those involved are concerned with power and all of the trappings like money and prestige. It is about select groups high-jacking activities, processes and procedures to secure their (and only their interests). Covert groupings of individuals based on clan, ideology or simply greed, co-operate with each other to obtain an unfair share of the resources of an organisation. In this sense office politics act against long-term organisational interests at least from a shareholder perspective.


Why are some organisations more political?
Some organisations have always been very political. It is part of their DNA and their corporate culture. For those working there it all seems rather normal if not very nice. Yet there are other factors which seem to increase political behaviours.
First, excessive competition at the top: It is a gladiatorial fight to get ahead and foul play is the consequence. Second, companies with complex structures seem very prone to politics: the route to the top is unclear perhaps deliberately so. It takes the determined Machiavellian to push his or her way through at all costs. Third, it occurs where there is no clear definition of performance: this may mean people deceive and obfuscate their and others’ performance.
Office politics occurs in situations of high (or very low) level of change; the more things are in flux and malleable, the more the politics is likely to occur. Equally, it occurs with the refusal by powerful people to change; in this case the only strategy for the ambitious leader is devious. Limited resources and jobs at risk can increase political behaviours because of the apparent failure of more open, direct and above board methods.
Ask a group from any big organisation to rate on a 10-point scale (where 10 is high) how political their organisation is. You don’t have to define the concept. You will be surprised how many people say 11 or 12 and how much they hate it.

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About the Author
Adrian Furnham was Professor of Psychology at University College London 1981 to 2018, and now Adjunct Professor of Management at the Norwegian School of Management. Previously a lecturer in Psychology at Pembroke College, Oxford, he has also been a Visiting Professor of Management at Henley Management College. He has written over 1200 scientific papers and 90 books.

1. DeLuca, J. R. (1999). Political savvy: Systematic approaches to leadership behind the scenes. Berwyn, PA: EBG Publications.
2. Ferris, G. R., Treadway, D. C., Perrewé, P. L., Brouer, R. L., Douglas, C., & Lux, S. (2007). Political skill in organizations. Journal of Management, 33(3), 290-320.
3. Ferris, G. R., Treadway, D. C., Kolodinsky, R. W., Hochwarter,W. A., Kacmar, C. J., Douglas, C., & Frink, D. D. (2005). Development and Validation of the Political Skill Inventory. Journal of Management, 31, 126–152


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