Pair of brown leather work boots

Why You Need to Play Politics at Work

A man should focus solely on doing his job and forget all the back-office politics at work. Your boss is intelligent enough to see the value you’re providing – he will promote you over someone that isn’t as productive as you. I’ve heard this type of thinking regurgitated from superiors and peers my entire working life. The message is so intuitive, simple, and egalitarian that it must be true.

But, is it true?

What kind of results will this philosophy get you?


Following this philosophy, a man will never make it to the top of his organization. He will likely never receive anything except for incremental pay raises to reward him for his expertise and productivity. In fact, he will grow accustomed to seeing his peers (with less expertise and productivity) promoted to positions above him. The reality in the workplace is that you need to be more than a very skilled, productive worker to make it to the top.  

To understand why this is true, you need to understand three things. 1) How a manager views his employees and their role. 2) The reward for a job well done is more work, not a new job. And, 3) being “political” humanizes you in the eyes of your managers and senior leaders.

How a manger views his employees and their role

Work meeting and office politics

The typical manager is nothing more than a firefighter. He runs around and puts out fires all day long. There are always fires – personnel problems, work quality issues, line-of-sight taskings from his boss, etc. Because of this, he is concerned first and foremost with putting out fires – failure to put out a fire quickly and quietly gets the manager a lot of negative attention from his boss.

Only after the fires are put out, does a manager focus on things like productivity and performance.

Managers mentally put their employees into two categories: problem employees and employees that are not a problem. Problem employees are those that don’t even do the basic things well. They show up late to work, go home early, and do poor work. Often, they say inappropriate or awkward things in public. These  employees are hot coals that may turn into a fire for the manager at any moment. Most of the managers time is spent dealing with these fires and stopping them from garnering too much negative attention. Ideally, these people would be fired, but HR policies make that quite challenging.

What about the employees the manager categorizes as “not a problem”? This small percentage of employees is heavily relied upon by the manager. They are the most productive and competent of all the employees. Despite being critical to the success of the team, these employees don’t get the attention they probably should. These employees aren’t fires so they don’t have to be micromanaged.

The reward for a job well done is more work, not a new job

The “80 20 rule” (based on the Pareto principle) is alive and well in the work place when it comes to employees and work performed. In this case, it means that 80% of the work output is a result of the top 20% of employees. Yes, this means that a small fraction (1/5th) of employees perform the vast majority of the work. The other 80% of employees are not doing much to contribute to work output. In fact, some of them are doing poor work that will require fixing from the productive 20%.

Neon sign reading "work harder"

Since managers are always firefighting, and because the 80 20 rule is very real, managers must lean heavily on the productive and competent employees.

When actual work needs to be performed and it needs to be done well, who do you think will get tasked with doing it?

The unproductive 20%?

Of course not.

When extra work pops up, or when something really important needs to be done, managers will call upon the most productive to complete it. A manager won't risk giving that work to one of the problem employees since that would only create a fire for the manager. This is exactly why the reward for a job well done is more work.

Why managers do  this

Put yourself in the shoes of a manager. Do you want your star performers to leave your team? What would happen if one of your star performers did leave? 

Most likely, it would create a big fire as all the work that was performed by that productive employee is no longer getting done. This would make the manager look bad in his boss’s eyes and this is why many managers want to keep their productive employees right where they are. They will do whatever is necessary to keep those employees content so long as they keep producing. That means giving the employee lots of positive feedback, small pay bumps, and even a little flexibility.

Being “political” humanizes you in the eyes of your management

office politics in a cubicle city

We’ve been discussing how managers view their employees and the difference in productivity between the top 20% and the bottom 80%. So, who are the people that are getting promoted or obtaining new, more ideal roles?

Most of the people getting promoted are part of that 20%, but definitely not the top performers in that 20%.

The best of the best must remain in their roles. They have locked themselves in that position and made themselves indispensable. And, for some people, they are quite happy with that. Most people, though, want to get the big promotion. They want to climb that corporate ladder. These people will need to get political if they want to move up.

Getting political and playing office politics

What is meant by playing office politics? Being political means getting actively involved in work activities outside an employee’s core duties. This is a broad definition and so are the activities involved. Playing office politics involves taking on peripheral duties like planning the office Christmas party. Or, it means taking on side projects that your boss would otherwise have to do. 

One of the most important aspects of being political is getting to know your peers and leadership on a more personal level.

This requires making polite conversation and asking lots of questions. It also requires you to actively listen and remember the little details people share with you. A former boss of mine, John, had two kids. I knew all about the sports they played. On a Monday morning, I would make friendly conversation with my boss.

“Hey john, how was Timmy’s golf tournament? Oh, that’s great! I’m glad the weather held up.”

“What about your youngest, Taylor, did she have a swim meet this weekend? Excellent, what events did she do?”

What's the point?

What is the point of all this small talk? Why would someone volunteer to organize the company Christmas party? These things have nothing to do with your core work responsibilities.

That’s true, and that’s why they’re important.

These activities make you more of a human being to your boss. They stop viewing you as simply a cog in the machine. When you talk to them like a friend and do special work projects that make their life easier, you also invoke reciprocity. This is the idea that when someone does something nice for you, or they treat you like a friend, that you respond in kind. To make this work for you, you need to initiate, and you need to volunteer for things on your own volition. Reciprocity will not really work for you if you’re just doing what was assigned to you.

Most people never succeed in climbing the ladder because they fail at office politics. Assuming that you are competent at your job, playing office politics well is the most important action you can take to move up.

People fail at office politics for several reasons.

One reason is refusing to play. People that stubbornly refuse to be social or do special projects outside of their core duties are going to be stuck forever in their role. Another reason people fail is because they are socially awkward, pushy, or appear ingenuine. You must appear genuine and likable. Must.  


It’s not enough to be competent.

You need to do more than just show up on time and stay late every day.

And, it’s not even enough to be the best worker among your peers.

Being the "best" will simply make your boss want to keep you in your current position indefinitely. This doesn’t mean you should quit trying to be a productive worker, but it does mean you should seriously reconsider being the most productive worker. If you want to climb the ladder, you will need to get fully involved with office politics. If you don’t think you can do this, you may want to consider what you really want out of work. 

Maybe, climbing the corporate ladder isn’t for you.

(Read about other ways to reach your goals here)

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