David Maister - Professional Business, Professional Life
David’s ResourcesAbout David
NEW! Browse my materials by topic of interest:StrategyManagingClient RelationsCareersGeneral

Passion, People and Principles

Politics Part Two

post # 292 — January 25, 2007 — a Careers post

Yesterday’s blogpost was about the politics one encounters as a consultant or internal advisor.

However, the truth may be that you can never get away from office politics, no matter where you work.

There are many people who tell you that you need to be careful what you say, who you say it to, and how your message might be perceived (or misperceived).

The advice they would give is to act on a first presumption of suspicion or distrust — that it’s the only realistic way to behave. Unless you’ve built a strong, trustworthy relationship with a person, you should assume (they say) that whatever you say will be rebroadcast (and potentially misbroadcast) to a wide variety of people.

Naturally, this would also mean that you should be very careful with emails and voice mails — you never know who some people will forward your message to, or blind copy.

They would advise you to “strategize” what you say at meetings and when.

How do you out there feel about this? I’m torn. On the one hand, I think it terrible to be this paranoid.

I also believe that starting with a lack of trust is likely to breed mistrust. Playing office politics may only serve to worsen office politics. And if you’re not very skilled at it, it might be a disaster to try.

On the other hand, CAN you be a non-participant? I’d readily confess that some of my worst career events came from not being very attuned to (or skilled) at office politics. (I wish I picked up on unsaid things faster!)

Tell me, please, is it it really this bad out there? Is office politics a key part of everyone’s life (not just the advisor’s)? If so, where do you go to get better at it? Is there a reading list?


Clarke Ching said:

Hi David (and your many zillions of readers),

I’ve been pondering your question a lot recently (for a book I’m writing) and I remembered an interesting artcile by Fred Luthens of the University of Nebraska. It’s called “Successful vs Effective Real Managers”. It was one of the half-dozen useful things that still sticks in my mind from my MBA.

It starts, “What do successful managers – those who have been promoted relatively quickly – have in common with effective managers – those who have satisfied, committed subordinates and high performing units? Surprisingly, the answer seems to be that they have very little in common. Successful managers in what we define as “real organizations” – large and small mainstream organisations, mostly in the mushrooming service industry in middle America – are not engaged in the same day-to-day activities as effective managers in these organisations …”

In short, the successful managers spent more of their time socialising, politicking, and networking, than the effective managers. The effective managers spent more of their time doing “human oriented activities — communicating and human resource management”.

The SHOCKER is that the study found that less than 10% of the managers were BOTH SUCCESSFUL AND EFFECTIVE.

That’s right: 10 percent.

Contrast this quote from a successful manager:

“I find that the way to get ahead around here is to be friendly with the right people, both inside and outside the firm. They get tired of always talking shop, so I find a common interest — with some it’s sports, with others it’s our kids — and interact with them on that level. The other formal stuff around the office is important but I really work at this informal side and have found it pays off when promotion time rolls around”

… with this from a typical effective manager:

“Both how much and how well things get done around here, as well as keeping my people loyal and happy, has to do with keeping them informed and involved. If I make a change in procedure or the guys upstairs give us a new process or piece of equipment to work with, I get my people’s input and give them the full story before I lay it on them. Then I make sure they have the proper training and give them feedback on how they are doing. When they screw up, I let them know about it, but when they do a good job, I let them know about that too.”

You can see the problem here: It’s not necessary to be effective to be successful. Luthans recommends that organisations change their performance management systems to ensure that effective managers are promoted, but he also warns that it may be virtually impossible to do so.

So, his recommendation isn’t a lotta use then.

I think the key lies in figuring out how to do what the 10 percenters do it – they do what the effective managers do and then add in some politicking and networking on top of it. I bet that because they’re effective also that they they start with more trust when they do their politicking and networking too, which makes it easier.

That doesn’t answer your question though, does it? I’m not great a politicking … in fact, I’m pretty aweful at it. I’d love to learn how to do it better. The two books I’ve found most inspirational are crucial conversations and trust based selling.

I’ll be watching the comments here enthusiastically!

posted on January 25, 2007

Bob McIlree said:

David – Unfortunately, politics exists just about everywhere and those that don’t ‘play’ for whatever reason wind up getting ‘played’ whether they like it or not.

A couple of resources that may be of interest to you: my good friend TImothy Johnson hosts the Carpe Factum blog on office politics and project managment, and he has recently been selected as a contributor to Franke James office politics site that can be accessed here.

Hope you find both of interest and help.


posted on January 25, 2007

James Cherkoff said:

I’ve always felt it’s important to get two briefs for any project – the official one and the unofficial one.

posted on January 25, 2007

Steve Roesler said:


1. Was always one who trusted until a situation proved me wrong.

2. Lost 1.1 million dollars of a contract as a result of being immersed in work with a client corporation and not staying close to the CEO/owner who turned out to be a genuine weasel. It was a matter of internal politics.

3. After evaluating the situation, I realized that I KNEW he was a weasel and a player all along; I had chosed to stay away from him because of the distasteful nature of his interactions; and, as a result, wasn’t on top of his latest “mood.”

4. I then decided to try “Mistrust first” and let them earn my trust.

5. Didn’t serve me well, I wasn’t relaxed, and therefore was probably a bit ineffective for a while.

Now I’m back to taking people at their word until proven otherwise. But I very consciously look for cues, inconstistencies, and mysterious appearances by others as signals to gather more information and stay on top of what is happening. More often than not it is effective. Sometimes it gets so draining that I gracefully and slowly exit the engagement.

Conclusion: There is a difference between normal office politics—the ebb and flow of humans trying to maintain their place in the organization—and downright dishonesty and unmanaged backstabbing.

posted on January 25, 2007

James McGee said:

I think there is an important distinction between staying tuned to organizational politics and actively participating in them as an advisor. I’ve found that “being on the record” generally makes it easier for me to avoid being dragged into the worst of the politics.

I have a hypothesis that widespread adoption of technologies like blogs and wikis within organizations could reduce the worst abuses of organizational politics by increasing the general level of visibility and transparency within the organization. That would also suggest that these technologies will be hardest to introduce into organizations where politics is a particularly competitive sport.

posted on January 25, 2007

charles tippett said:

My take is you can’t ignore office politics, neither can you totally acquiesce/submit to them. If you ignore them – they will bite you, if you embroil yourself in them – you become superficial, skin deep and never develop trusting relationships – WHICH ARE THE KEY TO SUCCESS IN BUSINESS.

So, you can’t let politics cause you to fail (ignoring them), but neither can you successfully play politics to achieve anything really meaningful. Success is about heart, soul, commitment, passion – not being aloof, awry, cold and calculated. When things get tough (as they always do) I think it’s relationships cause you to succeed or to fail.

posted on January 25, 2007

Timothy Johnson said:

First, thanks to Bob for the reference to my site.

David, to answer your question “Is it really that bad out there?” The answer is yes… and no.

Yes, the situations you describe are very real, and professionals in all industries must be attuned to the perceptions they broadcast in any situation. That’s not office politics as much as it is just good common sense. And yes, office politics are out there, and one must be aware of the games being played as well as the players.

No, it doesn’t have to breed mistrust, nor does it have to be as bad as some people make it out to be. Being proactive, building smart relationships, leveraging resources wisely, and engaging selectively (rather than avoiding at all costs) can make office politics a tool to be used rather than a monster to be feared.

Thanks for raising the issue.

posted on January 25, 2007

John Wesley said:

I started my first office job 6 months ago and haven’t gotten far enough in to see the effects of politics. This post is really scaring me though. It seems unreasonable to not be able to trust the people you are supposed to collaborate with.

posted on January 25, 2007

Clarke Ching said:

Here’s a link to the Luthens article I mentioned earlier.

posted on January 25, 2007

Brad Hendricks said:

Hi David:

I was completeing a graduate course in Consulting Skills at Marymount University in Arlington, VA, and the professor Virginia Bianco-Mathis recommended the book, It’s All Politics: Winning in a World Where Hard Work and Talent Aren’t Enough by Prof. Kathleen Kelly Reardon of the Marshall School at USC. Dr. Mathis said that it was the best book she had come across on the subject in her many years of consulting.

posted on January 25, 2007

shank said:

Are office politics that bad? Dear God yes! It makes me cringe.

posted on January 26, 2007

Peggy said:

I liked how you started off by acknowledging that you can never get away from office politics – but I think that just because we acknowledge that they exist, doesn’t mean we have to be scared of them. I really liked this comment from The Brazen Careerist Blog:

“Here is a message for people who say office politics don’t matter: You will die a slow, painful career death. This is because there’s no getting around office politics, and mastering them is essential to being able to steer your own career.”

Too many people think politics is all about devious means, and conspiracies – but in reality, a big part of politics is just due process for getting things done. In my experience the people who hate politics the most are the people who like to rush things, aren’t interesting in paying attention to details and gathering as much good information and as many perspectives as possible before making decisions.

Of course there are people who do bad evil things to others in the corporate world. But that’s not politics – that’s just bad, evil people doing what bad, evil people do, and we’ve just got to trust that they will one day reap what they sow.

I posted a little more about it here.

posted on January 26, 2007

Raj Waghray said:

David, Whenever it gets too hot out there, I read and re-read this and it puts life in perspective. This is a quote from a book “Celebrating Silence” by Sri Sri Ravishankar.

“You cannot avoid politics, but you choose whether to harbour the politics in your mind or let them go. There was politics among the twelve apostles. There was politics among Buddha and followers. Krishna was immersed in politics. And you say you do not want to get involved in politics? The more you do not want it, the more your will harbour it in your consciousness. When you recognize politics in any group, it is a blessing for you to be centered and to go inward. You can do that without running away from people, without giving up. It can enhance your skill to act and to remain detached.

There are many advantages to becoming involved in politics. Politics amplify the diversity in people. It confronts you with different viewpoints, approaches and tendencies. It enhances your ability to communicate and act. It brings centeredness and dispassion. It shakes you up and makes you stand up to the knowledge. It enhances your capacity to accept and tolerate. It makes you realize that of all life is a game. Cross the threshold of politics and come to the Divine. The strong will smile through the politics and the weak will lament.”

posted on January 26, 2007

Charles H. Green said:

I’m coming to put more and more weight on three general propositions:

1. You get back what you put out,

2. You can be aware of politics without getting lost in it,

3. Life is too short to spend it in overly-politicized environments,

I like to argue that the world is moving more in a collaborative, trusting direction, but on a personal level, I don’t care. I have enough room to make choices.

I agree with you that you generally get better results by starting with trust rather than suspicison. And while it’s true that politics may be inevitable, if I just observe it as an “is” thing, I can accomplish a lot without having to “work” things politically.

And, if those two rules fail me, and I’m in a place too cynical, self-serving and nasty to suit me, I can always leave.

posted on January 26, 2007

MBarowsky said:


Thanks for your thoughtful and provocative blog/post. I saw you first speak at a conference in Bermuda a number of years back and was intrigued and enthralled by your forthrightness, honesty and directness. It was refreshing.

You mention having not caught on to “what was not being said in office politics / consulting arrangements”. What did you mean by that? Can you please give a few examples.



posted on January 29, 2007

David (Maister) said:

I don’t want to make this a confessional, nor betray my life secrets. But I’ll try to give examples.

a) Once, as a group leader, someone I was trying to coach said to me “You’re not really interested in me, you just want things to go well so you’ll look good.” Well, there was some truth in that, of course, but I had no idea that somene would think I had such bad motives. I learned that people attribute motives to you that you don’t have.

b) Another time, I did not realize that people in the group I was leading were beginning to “coalesce” around someone else who had a different point of view about our work. He always acted “buddy, buddy” with me, but I later learned that he was telling everyone else that my view of the issues was wrong and that we should be doing something else. What troubled me was not the substance (he may have been right) but that for months I had no clue that this back-room politicking and conversation was going on.

c) In my younger days, ‘ was the kind of person who, if someone asked “would you like to come jup for a cup of coffee/”, actually thought that coffee was what was being offered. Sometimes it was, and sometimes it was something else, but I never did get very good at figuring out quickly which it was – I’m slow on the uptake.

A speaker I once heard said that we not only need to get good at listening, but we also need to get good at “watching.” Understanding what people are not saying by their tone, body language, hesitations. People DON’T often say what they meana, and it’s a real skill to be able to figure it out quickly.

posted on January 29, 2007

Huey said:


I recently left a Big Four firm for industry. I thought the politics were bad in public accounting but now have to deal with even more ruthless people in my company. Thank God I have had the experience from being a partner with a Big Four to deal with situations and put my emotions aside. What gets me about some of the politics is how much time people spend trying to prove they are right on a particular point. Is it really that bad out there? Yes; and it’s mostly because of egos and the fact that most companies may not have a shared vision of the strategy in the executive ranks.

I appreciate your post and the related comments that followed. They are dead on.



posted on February 5, 2007

Sammy said:

I guess this is one of the issues where everyone has experience and an oppinion… I have been working in two different MNC’s of same industry. I feel that these two companies are in some places identical and in some places mirror images of eachother – when are talking about internal politics.

However I think that the few important things to get to know is the age of the organization, demographics and when talking about technology area… is the technology that the organization is working with “old” or new.

I have noticed that the companies have a tendency to setup, at least to some level, ambidexterous organizations when something is ramped up. People who are selected to work with the new stuff will work dynamically and are highly motivated (even if they were not before) and politics is practically non-existent.

My intuition says that when the age of the organization is young, motivated and the diversity is in balance there will not be so much politics. This is mostly due to small or irrelevant gap between present and possible aspirations.

This evil lives in us all and if one is not motivated or uncertainty is in the air the amount of politics will increase exponentially. So the Theories of Hertzberg (Two Factor Theory) and Maslow (Hierarchy of Needs) can be applied here.

If the level of office politics is above “normal” the organization has a cancer in it … roots can be in the organization itself or in some link of it.

Warm Regards


posted on March 13, 2007