skip to content

Executive and professional education


Though seemingly trivial, office politics can affect the performance of employees and organisations. The latest podcast in the Cambridge Judge Business Debate series asks how can we improve them?

Philip Stiles, Mark de Rond, Simon Stockley, Michael Kitson
L-R: Philip Stiles, Mark de Rond, Simon Stockley, Michael Kitson

In this episode, joining podcast host Michael Kitson, University Senior Lecturer in International Macroeconomics at Cambridge Judge Business School, are Cambridge Judge colleagues Philip Stiles, University Senior Lecturer in Corporate Governance; Mark de Rond, Professor of Organisational Ethnography; and Simon Stockley, Senior Faculty in Management Practice.

This is the 16th in a series of “Cambridge Judge Business Debate” podcasts featuring faculty and others associated with Cambridge Judge Business School and the broader Cambridge community.

This latest podcast focuses on office politics – the good and the bad – and ways to make office politics contribute to organisational performance rather than cause disruption.

Here is an edited transcript of some of the podcast discussion:

What is office politics, and how can
it be positive for an organisation?

Michael Kitson: “‘Office politics’ has a bad name and can often
be very disruptive. Given this, how can companies organise themselves and what
should workers do to yield the best possible results in the most positive
office environment?”

Philip Stiles: “‘Office politics’ is a very broad term: can it
be good and can it be bad? I suppose the answer is that both are possible. Office
politics are good if you want to advance your interests and your own career,
but office politics are bad if there is harassment or bullying or people
feeling that they’re part of an ‘out group’. Some people may feel office
politics promotes competition between people, and competition drives
performance; others feel competition drives more unwelcome behaviour in terms
of status or demeaning people or marginalising people.”

Mark de Rond: “There is a very big bad side to office politics
and the suspicion of office politics, and that’s the effect it has on individuals’
self-censoring. If I suspect office politics plays a big role in organisations I’m
much less likely to tell you what I really think at certain moments of time,
and self-censoring means that people in the organisation won’t hear all they
need to know to move the organisation forward.”

Balancing collaboration and

Michael Kitson: “In this university there is a big stress on
collaboration and congeniality, so how do you stress the benefits of collaboration
with the fact that you may also need some competition as well? It’s a difficult
one to deal with.”

Simon Stockley: “The devil is in the details, but one thing you
see repeatedly in these very rapidly growing startups is what a tremendous increase
in power does to the founding team – you have all manners of dysfunctional
behaviour creeping out. You also see intra-organisational teams set up in a
competing nature: that needn’t necessarily be a bad thing, but certainly some
of the practices in rapidly scaling technology ventures can be quite harmful.”

Mark de Rond: “The question is how do you find that sweet spot
where you want people to collaborate but you don’t want to weed out competition?
One way is to try to maintain a level of transparency throughout. Transparency
can fuel competition, but at the end of the day because there is transparency
it will leave people feeling it’s fair game. In sports, they find a way for people
who are innately competitive to somehow have some fun competing in a way that
won’t derail the overall project.”

Dealing with the difficult leader

Philip Stiles: “Often leaders drift into creating an ‘out group’
by default, by gathering people around them who are very similar to them, and
that’s a very forgivable thing; but there’s also a situation where people are
marginalised and feel they are being briefed against, and that creates a toxic
culture. There’s a distinction between acts of omission, in which mistakes are
made, and where you have people set out to be deliberately non-transparent or
deliberately tough or to affect people in a malign way, and that becomes very,
very damaging.”

Simon Stockley: “There is something called the ‘dark triad’ of
three closely related psychological states. There is psychopathy, narcissism or
self-love, and Machiavellianism or being extremely manipulative. The best
advice for people like that is simply to avoid them, because you’re not going
to beat them.”

Mark de Rond: “One practical thing is to look for a silver lining:
there may be very good reasons a person is being a certain way, and it may be
temporary because someone is going through a tough time. Or you might find ways
to work around people creatively: make them a consultant to a team rather than
a member of a team, or put them in charge of a small unit where the toxicity is
contained but it doesn’t feel like a humiliation for them.”

Philip Stiles: “One thing is not to underestimate is how
attractive some of these people can be; there is a reason these people become
chief executives – they may be toxic but they are charismatic and they have great
personal energy and have a kind of gravitational pull about them. So the
political thing is tricky: people will put up with a lot just to be around certain
kinds of characters even though they are difficult characters, because they are
on some kind of journey, some kind of path.”

Safety first

Michael Kitson: “How do you go about creating safe zones or safe
spaces in organisations?”

Mark de Rond: “If you need to have a difficult conversation,
one technique is to create two columns on a sheet of paper: on the left side
write down everything you plan to say today, and on the right side write down
all you would like to say – and then figure out a type of language that
moves at least some of the right side to the left side. There was a great
example involving Matthew Fleming, who played cricket for England. His captain
had to tell him he wasn’t playing in a one-day Test match in India, so he said:
‘Matthew, I don’t know what we’re going to do without you. I have no idea. But
we’re going to try.’ It may sound facetious but it’s really clever, because it
shows that language can be really, really helpful.”

Michael Kitson: “But that’s a difficult skill for people to have.”

Mark De Rond: “But therein lies the good news: people are so
poor at this that you don’t have to be perfect to make a big difference.”