I'm often asked about how to participate in workplace politics without sacrificing one's integrity. The question itself reveals part of the problem, because it contains within it two examples of a logical fallacy called false dichotomy. With regard to politics, the confusion relates to the concept of participation; with regard to integrity, the confusion relates to the definition of integrity itself.
The basic question is this: How can I participate in workplace politics without compromising my integrity?
To begin to sort out the confusion, let's define both workplace politics and integrity. For this discussion, we take workplace politics to be what happens when we contend with each other for control or dominance, or when we work with others to resolve specific issues. We take integrity to be the alignment of word and deed with values and principles.
The definition of politics exposes the first example of false dichotomy. It is the belief that we can choose not to participate in workplace politics. That is, the question assumes that we either participate, or we don't. In reality, we cannot choose not to participate in workplace politics. Anyone employed in an organization is participating in its politics to some extent. For example, if you decide not to play an active role, you are then still a witness. Because what witnesses see and think is important to the more active participants, even witnesses play a role.
The basic question above mistakenly assumes that it's possible not to participate in workplace politics. We can choose how we participate, but we cannot choose whether we participate. Some roles are more active than others, but if you're inside the organization, you're inside its politics.
Now consider Integrity. Most of us believe that if our words, deeds, values, and principles are not in alignment, then we lack integrity. A single statement, act, principle, or value, no matter how minor, violates one's integrity if it is inconsistent with one's other words, deeds, principles, or values. Indeed, some people believe that a single such violation — no matter how incidental, or how long ago — is enough to destroy a person's integrity utterly.
This exposes the second example of false dichotomy, because perfect alignment of words, deeds, values, and principles — 100% of the time — is impossible. As human beings, we cannot choose whether we Most of us believe that
if our words, deeds,
values, and principles
are not in alignment,
then we lack integritywill violate our integrity; we can only choose how and — to some extent — how often. Since absolute integrity is unachievable, a concept of degrees of integrity is more useful. For example, "She has a lot of integrity."
The problem underlying the basic question arises when we believe first we can totally avoid political participation, and second that integrity is absolute and all-or-nothing. Out here in Reality, though, both political participation and integrity are matters of degree. Reality is a whole lot messier than our theories. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
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- Power Affect
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
- A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
- And on August 1: Strategies of Verbal Abusers
- Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action. Available here and by RSS on August 1.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.
Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.