What is office politics, anyway?
There were four of us. Around the table. You know who you are.
Friends. Colleagues. Partners. Not all of us working for the same firm but working together and knowing that we will be friends past this moment as we were up to this moment.
Even if one is leaving.
That’s why we are here. Leaving drinks. Happy for you. Sad for us. No really. That simple.
And bittersweet is how leaving drinks are meant to be.
So here we are. The night is coming to an end. Most folks have left. Four of us around the table.
We are getting a little emotional.
We say, I will miss you. And you know I love you dude. And I am so excited for you.
What we don’t talk about is why the departure. Because hey. We all leave towards good stuff. But some times we leave in a motion both towards and away from. An opportunity only considered because the present didn’t hold enough love, promise, trust or wonder.
We leave bad bosses. We leave organisations that let us down. We leave teams whose priorities don’t feel right.
After a time of fighting it, the right opportunity will come and we will be open to it. It is right, because you are open to it. And it may be amazing. But it doesn’t change the fact that you are moving towards it and moving away from something at the same time.
That night was no exception. We knew it. We didn’t talk about it.
Until, into the silence, into the thing we were so actively not discussing, one of us said: what is politics anyway. Sip. Leda, you should write about it. Sip.
So here we are.
What is politics anyway?
The personal is the political
In a layer even deeper than my banker-ness, I am a political scientist.
And I will tell you that to people who study politics, politics is everything.
Human interactions that go beyond emotion or kinship, that rely on repeatability, rules and conventions, dependency and coexistence generate their own politics and politics is about communities organise themselves. The rest is incidental.
Seeking to understand the place of each individual in a matrix, formal or informal, is politics.
You call it stakeholder mapping. I call it working out what makes humans tick.
You call it stakeholder management. I call it building relationships that make sense to people who matter to you, and you to them, so that you can be part of an ongoing interaction with continuity and honestly.
Some people do it with no panache.
Some people cannot do it with the best will in the world.
Most of us manage at least some of this some of the time. We see the value, we see the purpose, we need it ourselves, and we do not see it as either sinister or redundant. Just as part and parcel of work. Life. Community.
These people are here. You share their days with them. They share yours. They impact your effectiveness. They affect your work. They can derail your day.
Get to know them. Make this easier on everybody.
Is that “politics”?
But it’s not the type we mean when we whisper “politics” to each other.
That’s the other kind.
What is politics anyway?
Let’s keep this simple. I like simple.
Office politics is not a term you ever use to describe work you consider essential. Useful. Constructive. And it is never used to encapsulate anyone you… what’s the word I am looking for here… like.
So politics is office short-hand for people we don’t trust doing exactly the sort of things that make us not trust them.
Lie, backstab colleagues. Make short-sighted choices when they know better. Protect themselves at the expense of their team. Throw people under the bus out of selfishness or fear.
And why politics?
Because time and again we have seen those guys and gals crowned. If not emperor then at least prom queen. We have watched them do wrong. And come up trumps. Hence politics. The greasy pole with power at the far end.
Is that what politics is anyway? Yes. And no.
A decade ago, a colleague took credit for my work in a meeting. She kept a straight face. She took the praise. I was incandescent. People on the call and in the room knew it wasn’t her work. But when the big boss mistakenly praised her to high heaven she took the praise and everyone stayed shtum. So much so that I knew that to say anything would make me sound petty and childish.
I turned on my boss like a torpedo the minute the call was over. WHAT THE ACTUAL. Why did you let that happen?
Because we couldn’t turn it around and not sound petty. Because she will fall flat on her face when she needs to follow up on this work and can’t because she has no idea how it came about (truth). Because you will have another million good ideas and she won’t go much farther than this (truth, she’s still in the same role. I am seven lifetimes away). Because this moment is nothing to you and a lot to her. Because this is life some times.
That last bit I am not down with. The rest turned out to be true. Was that politics? I guess it was. But there is more to it and we all know it.
When we talk about politics, and shake our heads, over a night cap at a cherished colleague’s leaving drinks, we are not talking about anything other than taking the temperature of our organisation when it comes to its values and integrity and on some level finding it wanting.
We are all political animals.
The Polis is just an organised grouping of humans co-existing. City or office, the principle remains. Politics is about coordinating how we live together. How we work together. How we thrive together. Through good days and bad.
And if you go down the Aristotelean path, we all need it. Only gods and beasts live alone. The rest of us need each other and in needing each other we need the Polis, the community of organised coexistence.
So, my dear friend. What is politics anyway?
It is us living together. Us coordinating what coexistence needs to achieve. What it needs to exclude. What the rules are. What our values are. What our boundaries are. What our collective identity, purpose and tenor is. That is what is politics. And that is what we are safeguarding when we lament office politics. The people who break the rules, who breach the covenant.
What is politics? Our way of living together and achieving together. Yes. Also in the office.
But when you sit, late at night, with people you have come to love because of who they are in your little polis, the community that is the workplace and your partnership of joint endeavour, your community, your politics done right, your tribe, when you sit with them late at night with a drink at your elbow and a loved member of your community, your polis, your team leaving… in that moment politics is not what brought you here in terms of the camaraderie and the shared moments that mean this person is a friend for life. In that moment, politics is what brought you to this moment of breach after the community emerged. Not the thing that build your community but the thing that tore it asunder. Politics is where we let each other down, lost a battle, lost a war, lost a team member. Politics is our way of saying we are poorer now. Because you are going. And you are going because of choices made inside the community we are all part of. And although we are not the ones who did it, here we are, all suffering because of it.
Politics. Bloody politics.
But I raise my glass, my friends.
To my tribe. My polis. My people.
The community of folks I love deeply and trust deeply because we have worked side by side and I have seen their mettle. I have seen them make hard choices. I have seen them make right choices. Again and again and again.
And although that is not politics, not really, not the way we mean it. It also is.
Without the struggle and strife or trying to bring people together, build communities and do right by each other, we wouldn’t be here. The politics of that are unspoken. But they bring us to each other’s side again and again and again.
For some, politics is about winning the battle. For others, it’s wining the war. For me, it is building communities of purpose.
I know whose side I am on. And I know who is on mine.
So I raise my glass, wish my friends good luck wherever they go and know that we have each other’s back, whatever happens, because we know what each other is made of. We know what our community is. And we know the community is stretchy, and our covenant holds, wherever we are.
And that is not nothing.
And that is also politics. The kind that doesn’t need speaking about. The kind that gives hope. The best kind.
By Leda Glyptis
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption as CEO of 11:FS Foundry.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!