Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Logic versus Office Politics

Things that make you go, “Huh?” You’re one of the key people behind the concept for a potentially important new product (or program). You’ve gone through the preliminary investigation and presented a proposal to management, and they’ve just given the green light to proceed. Yea! The relevant managers meet to decide who should be on the team, and when you hear some of the names, you fall back in bewilderment. It just makes no logical sense! There are people included in critical roles who simply have no clue of what they’re doing, much less the remotest understanding of what the product should be or what’s involved in further defining and then developing it. Some are simply the favored lackeys, kiss-ups, and bootlickers of some of the managers, who will dutifully report back to their bosses, but who will get in the way of making real progress on the efforts to turn the product concept into reality. In short, you’ve just been slapped upside the head with the reality of office politics superseding logic, and in ways that may endanger product and project success. You continue your participation, hoping for the best, but your excitement is diminished and uncertainty and doubt now tamp down your prior unbridled enthusiasm, but you find yourself powerless to change anything.

What’s described above is but one example of office politics in the workplace, but office politics impacts thinking and decision making in myriad ways across virtually all workplaces. We’d all like to think that decisions made in the workplace are driven primarily by logical and thoughtful analysis (see Pound the Facts, Not the Table), but the reality is that office politics, egos, “feelings”, and organizational inertia often have a strong, even outsized, influence on decision making (see Don’t Confuse Me With the Facts!). 

In an ideal world, the best solutions should win, but too often, we end up with design by committee, where sub-optimal solutions win in order to satisfy the political needs of various, often warring, parties. Ideally, you want to involve people who know what’s what, who actually do things, while understanding operational concepts; people who can meaningfully plan, implement, and accomplish things. But when management gets involved, they want their favored players involved, whether they know anything or not, and you end up with an outcome more like an ungainly camel than a sleek racehorse.

There may be differences in the amount of influence office politics has within different workplace organizations, but even this will vary greatly from workplace to workplace. For example:

  • Engineering, almost by definition, tends to be more logical than political in their approach to everything, but even here, the power structure of the organization and favored players can still bring office politics into the decision-making process. Numerous other organizations in a typical company also tend to lean more logical than political, including Manufacturing, Quality, etc.  But depending on their leadership and others in positions of influence, don’t discount the power of office politics over logic. 
  • Finance and Accounting tend to be primarily numbers-driven organizations (price, cost, margins, revenues, profits, etc.), and so lean toward the logical side in decision making, but financial considerations can also strongly influence the office politics of a company, and can, in turn, be influenced by the most powerful political players in the company.
  • Sales, Marketing, and Customer Service, being on the softer side of the business (e.g. customer and market needs and wants), tend to lean more to the political side of decision making, although more logical aspects (e.g. sales programs and forecasting, market analysis, etc.) also influence their decision-making approaches.

Some companies are better than others, but all fall somewhere along a continuum from strictly logical to purely political in their decision-making process. You likely have the best view in your organization of how decisions actually are made, versus what you’d like that decision-making process to be.

So what can you do to help achieve more rational (logical) decision making in your organization, and how can you help influence rational outcomes?

  • Learn your audiences and who the real decision makers are. What drives their decision-making processes?
  • Learn who the power players are, and understand what drives them. What guides their decision-making process? 
  • Develop your positioning arguments from multiple perspectives, including logical, rational, technical, financial, etc., but also be sure you can position your arguments from the political perspectives of those involved in the decision-making process. If you can’t do this yourself, seek help from those you trust who do understand this perspective. Adapting to your real-world environment is essential (see Adapt or Die!
  • Then consider how can you can tailor your approach to best convince those you need to of the value and benefits of your position?

Navigating the potential minefield of office politics, particularly when you are not a particularly political animal, can be difficult, sometimes bordering on impossible. But everyone needs to develop at least a basic understanding of office politics in their particular workplace, and ways to navigate the minefields, if they are going to truly succeed in their real world.

In an objective, rational, “Just the facts, please” type of workplace, logic will often prevail, leading to facts-based, logical decision making (see Blunt Talk and Black and White Reasoning). In a more political, “What’s in it for me?” type of workplace, more emotional, political decision making may dominate (see Style over Substance). Typically, both exist side-by-side, even within the same person involved in the decision-making. The results of the struggle between logic versus office politics will determine what kind of workplace it is, and your ability to accept and even thrive in that workplace.

I’d like to thank Dan Belbusti, my son-in-law and a great friend, for suggesting this topic and providing numerous examples. Office politics is a reality in virtually all workplaces, but that doesn’t make it any easier to accept or live with.

Copyright 2012 Workplace Insanity, All Rights Reserved


  1. If your workplace is poison, sometimes you have to use it just to survive.

    1. Hi Chip,
      Been there, done that, and it isn't pleasant. If your workplace is truly toxic, then you often do have to use it to survive, but its toxicity will poison your soul. Tolerate it only as long as you must, and get out as soon as possible. Your sanity and your soul depend on it.

      Thanks - Tom


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