Since starting her employment as a credit finance officer with a local bank seven years ago, Ms Ann Wainoi, 31, says she has only known anger and frustrations in her office, and little about angling for the next position up the ladder in her career.
“There has been a lot of wrangling and manoeuvring, and I just hate it. I am generally not a person of office politics, but ignoring it has been at the expense of my career advancement,” she says.
According to her, while there are always a number of promotions every year, this is normally preceded by intense lobbying, manoeuvring, back-stabbing and playing underhand deals in order to get the promotion, often over a more merited person.
Over the years, the credit officer had seen more mediocre employees promoted and this has eaten into her self-esteem as well as job satisfaction.
“I had always thought job promotion goes purely on merit, but I have been proven wrong by my own experience,” offers Ann, adding that she is considering quitting since any fair treatment at her office is nowhere in sight.
While her case shows how frustrating it can be for an employee where office politics reign supreme, Mr Daniel Makori, a HR lecturer at Kenyatta University’s Nakuru campus, says there are extreme cases of office politics gone rogue.
“By nature, office politics are supposed to be positive: where for example, a senior editor can inspire his reporters to beat the deadline or a managing partner can rally his associates to bill more time,” he says.
Sadly, he adds, there are many cases of negative office politics that bring about severe consequences to both the employee’s job satisfaction and the company’s well-being.
“In his book Fourth Protocol, Fredrick Forsythe explains in detail the damaging aspect of negative office politics,” he offers.
In the book, continues Mr Makori, an ambitious but otherwise mediocre deputy director of Britain’s MI5 known as Mr Brian Harcourt-smith almost sabotages an international nuclear war operation in his quest to become the director, and this doesn’t augur well with his superiors.
Before he resigns after failing to get the promotion, Mr Harcourt caused deaths of many agents with his irrational decisions and senseless politicking, and this, even though fictitious, shows just how severe consequences of office politics can be.
By definition, says Dr Florence Kagendo, a HR lecturer at the University of Nairobi (UoN), office politics refers to the things, strategies and manoeuvres that employees play to gain advantage, either personally or for a cause they believe in, and at the expense of others or the greater good.
“Though positive office politics is good and can promote productivity at the workplace, negative office politics adversely affects the working environment and relationships,” she notes.
There is no way, she observes, no matter how saintly you are, you can be cordial or good willing to a person who back-stabbed you, leading to the loss of the promotion you so much wanted.
Also, she continues, a supervisor who keeps on giving you public put-downs will find their way into your list of least liked persons, and it is easy to figure out that your working relationship with such a person will deteriorate.
In her book, The secret handshake, it’s all politics, comebacks to work, Kathleen Kelly, a professor of workplace politics at University of Southern California, enumerates four types of workplace politics that an employee can come across.
In minimally political companies, she writes, rules are occasionally bent and favours granted, but underhanded forms of politics are avoided.
This is the type of organisation in which those with little understanding of or interest in politics — the purists among us — can thrive.
Moderately political organisations, on the other hand, have political behaviour that is low-key or deniable. Conflicts are unusual, as there is a team player mentality.
This environment works for people who’d rather not engage in politics but are capable of managing or living with pockets of political activity.
“In a highly political arena,” adds Prof Kathleen, “The lack of political understanding or being unwilling to engage in its more surreptitious forms can exact a price. Formally sanctioned rules are only invoked when convenient to those with power. In-groups and out-groups are usually well-defined.
"Who you know is likely to be more important than what you know. Working in organisations like these can be very stressful. Political street fighters, who know the ropes, do far better than those who don’t keep abreast of the games being played.”
According to Prof Kathleen, the most virulent forms of office politics can be seen in pathologically political organisations, as she defines them. Here, she writes, daily interactions are fractious.
Nearly every goal is achieved by going around people or formal procedures. People distrust each other — and for a good reason.
Out of necessity, people spend a good deal of time watching their backs. This said, she notes, developing political competence in any workplace is necessary, and thus office politics cannot be avoided.
“You do not control the form of politics that will hit your workplace or you will find in the new company, and as such, the best bet is to give yourself some political skills by making office politics work for you,” she writes.
“Instead of giving yourself psychological problems by worrying and hating that colleague who wants to have everything for himself, I would say you get political skills and kick some back,” says Dr Geoffrey Wango, a psychology lecturer at UoN.
“We call it a logical act of defence and there is nothing to be guilt about in that,” he adds.
A good case in point, according to Dr Wango, is the perceived hand of Deputy President [William Ruto] in Raila Odinga party’s [ODM] loss in the recent by-elections conducted in Ugenya and Embakasi East.
“If in deed Dr William Ruto played a hand in these by-elections, then this can be a classic example of office politicking (remember politics is the office for politicians) and the back-stabbing that ensues. He was able to pull the rag under the feet of his perceived enemy, and this is epic and very tactful in the eyes of those who practice office politics,” explains Dr Wango.
On his part, Mr Makori, the HR lecturer, concurs that it’s dumb to take low-value projects just to please someone or to let go a battle unfairly and undeservedly bruised.
“In the business of office politics, it pays to remain unpredictable. It’s easier for others to micromanage you for their own advantage when you are a predictable colleague. When you are unpredictable, someone who wants to backstab you will find it a tough going.”
All in all, points out the HR expert, the biggest crime you can commit in office politics is be naive. “Read about office politics. What are good and negative office politics? How can I gain political competence?”
He adds that when you have this, navigating the murky world of office politics will be easier.