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How Our Personalities Shape Office Politics

(this article was first published on LinkedIn)

I rarely have a dialogue with someone without the office politics topic unseeingly sneaking into the conversation. It comes as a subtle parenthesis or full-flavored behavior that my discussion partner tries to counteract. Pretty similar to office politics itself, which ranges from sophisticated (well-intended sometimes) manipulations to outright power plays.

Recently running a survey on this topic, I was grateful for the large number of answers I got, but I also realized how consuming this subject is for so many of us.

While research[1] has found that in virtual workplaces, office politics are diminished, my empirical evidence suggests differently. That's because there is a greater risk of misinterpretation and misunderstandings. Without the ability to see facial expressions or body language, it can be easy to misinterpret tone or intent in written communication. This can lead to conflicts and confusion. If you found yourself putting hours into doing something that was requested in an email only to learn later that whoever wrote that was “just joking”, then you know what I’m talking about.

With office politics, the difficulty is less in what’s visible and what we’re conscious about. The problem resides in the invisible to us and in us. So, the solution is simple: bring more things into the light and/or become more conscious. Easier said than done, unfortunately.

Let's pause for a second, and see if you can relate to this situation: "You had no intention to create an internal war when you told your boss about the issues in your team's communication, but you unwittingly sparked a political firestorm. Although you only had the best intentions, wanting to address the problem and find a solution, your actions inadvertently created a power struggle and multiple conflicts within the team. You wish you were aware of the potential consequences of your actions and considered the political implications of your decision to take this particular path. "

If you do, do you know what’s the good part? At least you know you’re the trigger! There are countless situations when the persons that do similar things have no clue what their approach led to. They only notice very late that something changed around them (usually not in a positive way).

People play a major role in the type, magnitude, frequency, and implications of office politics. Their personalities dramatically influence the game, its rules, and how it's played. Each one's personality shapes office politics. But how do we get that crystal ball that reveals personalities, in all their complexity?

While there are multiple profiling mechanisms and tools that can help identify the different personalities, I believe most of them can be as harmful as they are helpful due to the proneness of (hasty) generalization and drawing the wrong conclusions. Nevertheless, if it’s to make assumptions about someone, due to their personality profile reading (or anything else), I invite you to thoroughly check those assumptions first. And not by trying to confirm them, but by trying to prove them false as many times as possible.

Still, since this article must cover somehow the personalities, I invite you on a slightly different journey, in the invisible world of the saboteurs.

According to the Positive Intelligence set of concepts[2], saboteurs are internal enemies that exist within us and can sabotage our efforts to succeed and be happy. So, they exist in everyone: in me, in you, and in each of your colleagues in your (virtual) workplace. These saboteurs manifest in different ways and can have a significant impact on how we interact with others in the workplace, especially in the realm of office politics.

Before you continue, I recommend you take the free assessment[3] and discover who your saboteurs are. This way, you can relate better to the content below, being able to confirm or in-firm it. You might also be more open to recognizing some of your political behaviors.

It’s interesting to see how your saboteurs’ ranks and individual scores evolve, so taking the assessment once a year and noting these parameters may help you in the long run.

Another reason for which I prefer to look at the saboteurs, rather than Myers-Briggs for example, is that this way we give a chance to the person and focus only on one single aspect of their personality at a time, an aspect that, most probably, they do not consciously choose to use and that is, probably, more harmful to them than it is to the others.

Now let's see how some of the saboteurs act in the workplace.

The Restless Saboteur is a common character in the office politics game. They are always on the move, never satisfied with where they are, and constantly looking for something new and exciting. This behavior can be detrimental to the overall team and company goals, as their lack of focus and commitment can lead to missed deadlines and incomplete or poor-quality work. And any of these opens the floor for office politics.

The Avoider Saboteur is the master of evasion when it comes to office politics. By avoiding communication and interaction with their colleagues, these saboteurs can create a sense of distance and disengagement from the team. This can lead to misunderstandings, missed opportunities for collaboration, and a lack of trust between team members.

The Hyper-Achiever Saboteur is a classic overachiever who sets impossibly high standards for themselves and others. Feeling even more pressure to perform and stand out from their coworkers, they may also become more competitive and cutthroat, using any means necessary to get ahead, including sabotaging the work of others.

The Victim Saboteur is one of the most recognizable characters in office politics. They are prone to self-pity and blaming others for their problems, which can make them seem powerless and vulnerable. They may be more likely to let others take credit for their work or to avoid speaking up when they disagree with a decision, fearing conflict or backlash. This can lead to resentment and a lack of respect for and from their colleagues, further perpetuating their feelings of victimhood.

If you're interested in the behaviors of the other types of saboteurs or in understanding more about how power dynamics and personalities shape office politics, what other behaviors the saboteurs employ and what is different between physical and virtual workplaces in this context, take a look at my short read (free with Kindle Unlimited) covering these, part of my The Zen of Office Politics series.

[1] Elron, E., & Vigoda-Gadot, E. (2006). Influence and Political Processes in Cyberspace. International Journal of Cross Cultural Management.

[2] Shirzad Charmine, 2012, “Positive Intelligence: Why Only 20% of Teams and Individuals Achieve Their True Potential and how You Can Achieve Yours”, ISBN 1608322785/ 9781608322787, Greenleaf Book Group Press


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