Office politics suck. It sucks for the company and it sucks for the employees.
It sucks because it is so resource intensive. It takes time and effort to learn the dynamics of the organization (the rules of the game), play the game, and be good at it. This is time and effort that should have been used for more productive activities.
It sucks because the asset and skill set you build are not transferable. You are making your investment in people and how they perceive you, and people change in organizations. The boss may get transferred or fired or may hire a new favorite. The company you work for may go bankrupt. You and the investment you have made are at the mercy of these changes. Also, that nice title you got without the competency to back it up will bite you in the ass in the future (and everyone below you will be laughing).
So why do many (most?) companies fall into the trap of unproductive, political corporate culture? The answer is simple game theory. The team’s output is maximized when none of the members are playing politics. However, from an individual member perspective, if someone else is playing the game, you are better off playing, even at the expense of hurting the productivity as a team. Once the game starts, you can’t expect the members to take one for the team and get screwed over. As Ice-T once said, with office politics certainly on his mind, “Don’t hate the playa, hate the game”.
If you want to build a productive organization you need to prevent the game from starting by taking these two steps. First, you have to hire the right people. One bad apple can really mess things up, especially if that person is higher ranked. Trustworthiness is more important than experience and knowledge. Second, as a leader of a team, you have to stay disciplined. Management laziness and ignorance creates a breeding ground for misaligned incentives. If you can’t see through the bullshit your reports present you with, you don’t deserve to be overseeing that area. If you see a bad apple, you need to have the discipline to fix the problem.
In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team Patrick Lencioni illustrates a pyramid that summarizes the essential components of a productive team. Not surprisingly, trust is the base of everything. Team members trusting each other that they won’t play politics will ensure a bullshit free (not conflict free) environment, leading to a more productive team.