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More office politics now than 20 yrs ago?

Dear Office-Politics,

Do you feel there is more office politics now then there was 20 yrs ago?

I think there is more office politics now, because it is now tougher to find a job than 20 yrs ago. This is because everything is computerized, and there are not many manual labour jobs like before. So everyone has to go back to school to upgrade computer skills & fight for whatever jobs are left in the workplace now. Also because of free trade, alot of jobs have been cut & moved to Mexico where labour is cheap & also now people have to save money for their retirement savings plan, where as 20 yrs ago people could depend on the gov’t to provide a good old age pension. Some of these difficult situations are causing people to backstab & manipulate other people in order to get good jobs & promotions! What do you think?

Longing for good old days


dr. rick brandon
dr. marty seldman

Dear Writer Longing for the “Good Old Days” When There Were Less Politics,


OK, sorry to be in a flippant mood today, since we take your concern seriously but are just being playful. We are not making fun of your observation that there are more politics today than 20 years ago, but merely underlining your astute realization and will gladly elaborate and provide clarity even beyond the reasons you state. We’ll also offer an invitation to reframe politics as not all being about when people “backstab & manipulate to get jobs and promotions” so that you experience determination and hope rather than desperation and despair.


Your hunch about the work shortage as a contributing factor to increased politics these days is certainly a piece of the puzzle, since scarcity and job instability can create conditions of pressure, fear and greed, which are all factors that can compel people to act more rashly, selfishly, and sometimes unethically. We often quote the Wall Street maxim that “Fear and greed move the stock markets,” and can also move people to act more politically in the negative sense (yes, there can be a positive sense of acting politically, as you’ll soon read). You know that greed is a real negative motivator when you see families getting along fine until someone dies, and suddenly brothers and sisters call in the lawyers over the estate. So when one’s ability to get a job is threatened, you can imagine the cut-throat behavior people are capable of exhibiting. Yes, in a crisis we see the best in human behavior, but sometimes we see the worst as well (e.g. looting, selfish behavior, being a coward and saving oneself, etc.). Let’s also add in the fact that there are more mergers and acquisitions, reorganizations, cost containment initiatives, cost restructuring, and downsizings that lead to fewer jobs, and the financial pressures escalate big-time.

Beyond the “supply and demand” mentality in the job market that fuels more politics existed than when we were younger, once a fortunate person has actually landed a job and conditions are secure for employment, politics still occur more frequently today than years ago. Why? Because the larger a company is, the more people’s negative behavior can be shielded and hidden, with some power tyrants’ building a moat around their controlling, abusive, or unethical behavior. They can hide destructive behaviors and selfish agendas more easily in behemoth organizations more than in small, transparent companies.

Also, many of today’s companies are more complex and turbulent, with constant changes, volatile markets, demanding performance bars being perpetually raised–– all factors that lead to competition for visibility, but also to the perceived and actual need to be more political just to survive. This is why our best selling book is called Survival of the Savvy, because there is in fact a “corporate survival of the fittest.”

It takes political savvy and skill to not only survive, but to THRIVE with influence, impact, career growth, and role credibility for your team. Every department is placed somewhere in the “corporate food chain” and that’s just the reality of limited resources and “mind-share” of top management. The positive skills of politically astute people these days include the ability to navigate company politics, to know how to get things done in the organization, to read the “unwritten rules,” to determine who holds formal power and informal power beyond mere position power title. All of these factors are tougher to read in today’s more complex organizations characterized by more dotted line relations, matrix management structures, and “responsibility without authority.” So, the classic organizational chart is still important to be able to understand, but we say that “organizational and political savvy is also about reading the white space on the org chart!”

Bottom line conclusion? The higher up you go in a company (since the stakes are higher), the larger and more complex the company (since the fuzzier the “rules” are and harder to gain influence due to lack of position power, and the more immersed in pressure/fear/greed a company might be (due to sometimes misguided reactionary behavior for self-protection), the more politics will exist… In short, the answer to your question is… YES!!!!!!!

In the classic American tale, Rip Van Winkle, by Washington Irving, the old woodsman drinks some magic wine and wanders into the woods to fall asleep for a nap, but awakens 20 years later to find he has slept through the American Revolution. He fell asleep a subject under King George and awoke a colonist under George Washington, the first President. He went from a subject of a monarchy to a citizen in a democracy. We liken this parable to today’s corporate manager, many of whom have slept through key business revolutions in addition to the ones stated above, all of which make being a manager tougher than ever before: (1) a revolution in technology and the nature of work (so managers cannot be know-all heros and must trust employees more), (2) a revolution in the type of workers and rules (no more blind acceptance of authority and increased diversity and litigation making proper treatment essential), (3) a revolution in the nature of the workplace and organizational structures (a move from silos to teams and rampant downsizing, so that managers must achieve much more with fewer resources and depend on influencing many people to motivate themselves and cooperate even without being their direct “boss”), and (4) a revolution in customer interactions (a new demand for word-class service and relationship-based way of doing business that forces managers to view employees as their customers and see that employees will treat external customers in the same way that they are treated are treated by their manager/supervisor).

What is our point? Simply that in the same way that managers must wake up to these revolutions to realize their tougher, new role as motivators and communicators, so too, must today’s workers and leaders have a “political wake-up call” to realize the world has indeed changed in light of increased competition, pace, and pressures. Companies HAVE become more political and if we remain in denial, it means we are sleeping through a revolution just as Rip Van Winkle did. What partially led the two of us to write Survival of the Savvy was our experience in coaching derailed executives and top managers. Twenty years ago, leaders in trouble who were asked to leave their companies or receive remedial “fix-it” coaching were the OVERLY political, low people skills, abrasive, abusive people (the ones that you said are backstabbing and manipulative to get ahead). What we have found in the past five to ten years, however, is that just as many derailed professionals and leaders are UNDER-political— these are good, decent, ethical, technically producing (if not brilliant), company-dedicated, loyal employees who are still in career plateau, derailment, or dead-in situations due to under-estimating the degree to which politics is important to their success and survival. However, they also must move beyond denial (as you have admirably done) to additionally realize that politics can be a force for good.

We previewed that we’d invite you to reframe “politics” and being “political” from being evil, a dirty word for sharks, to realize it can be “high-integrity” and “ethical politics.” We don’t teach or advocate the Greek definition of politics (“poly” meaning “many” and “tics” meaning “blood-sucking parasites”!), but we also steer clients clear of being naive or seeing all political skills and astuteness as wrong. This is not true. Political savvy and skills are essential in today’s business environment. Skills such as positive power building, networking, ethical lobbying or selling of your ideas, studying the power and unwritten rules in your company culture, and balanced self-promotion of what you and your team have accomplished and contributed can all be constructive strategies and capabilities. These skill sets build positive, high visibility that helps you survive WITHOUT resorting to sabotage and trash-talking others to stay ahead. Like it or not, some people do resort to such low-integrity behaviors (which means we also must teach and learn how to handle sabotage, address hidden agendas, and detect deception), but that does not mean all politically skilled people lack class or positive values. Another cornerstone of ethical political skills is to cultivate a strong, positive image (what we call “corporate buzz” and reputation) and to know tactics for consciously altering unfair or accurate negative perceptions—“managing the airwaves” since impression management is critical.

Such survival and “thrival” skills (OK, not a real word!) are vital given the sea changes you surfaced in your letter and that we have fleshed out in our response. Thanks for your insights and launching pad into our “realistic rant.” We hope it was helpful and that you explore practical tips for navigating organizational politics with a moral compass by reading our book, taking our 65-item Organizational Savvy Self-Assessment (or new multi-rater version), contacting a corporate coach, and/or attending a workshop of positive power and influence through high-integrity political skills.

Thanks for writing to Office-Politics and good luck!


Rick Brandon, Ph.d. and Marty Seldman, Ph.D. Co-authors,
Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success

cover of Survival of the SavvyRick Brandon, Ph.d. and Marty Seldman, Ph.D. are Co-authors, Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success. Dr. Rick Brandon is CEO of Brandon Partners. He has consulted and trained tens of thousands at corporations worldwide, including Fortune 500 companies across a variety of industries. Dr. Marty Seldman is one of America’s most experienced executive coaches. His 35-year career includes expertise in executive coaching, group dynamics, cross-cultural studies, clinical psychology, and training.

  1. One Answer to “More office politics now than 20 yrs ago?”

  2. Feedback from Longing for good old days

    Thank you for your delightful answers to my question!

    By Letter Writer on May 11, 2007

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