The subject of this article is interesting for me. I am an introvert, and some methods of building social networks don't come naturally to me. Come hang out after work at the bar with eight co-workers? No, thanks. My kids are waiting for me at home. Plus, I have a great book I want to read if I get a quiet few moments.

To my fellow introverts, I'll suggest that there are many ways to skin a cat, or build a social network. While some co-workers regularly organized larger social events, I spent a good amount of my social time having one-on-one meetings with co-workers. Perhaps it scales worse than large events, but it's my way of interacting with others.

What struck me was that I was repeatedly told in my career that I needed to socialize more, attend more social events, be more visible at Friday happy hours. I'm not convinced that's the case. I think we all have our ways of interacting with others. Build trust. Build connections. Do it in the way that you personally are comfortable. Be yourself (as long as you're not a jerk), and it'll work out.

Most people consider office politics a bad thing. It refers to the negative aspects of power and influence wielded by the elite in a company.

For years, I assumed that I hated office politics as well.

At one point, I was helping someone else with their promotion. I casually explained certain steps they could take, which I found valuable. They sighed, and said they hated office politics.

"Office Politics??" I said to myself. I was confused. Then I realized that I was explaining and advocating that they participate in explicit office politics to obtain their promotion.

Yet, this isn't a story about why office politics are stupid. It's about why they're not all bad, and can be a great tool for individuals and a company when wielded the right way. I'm going to ask that you re-consider your personal framing of what office politics means.

What is office politics?

"It involves the use of power and social networking within a workplace to achieve changes that benefit the organization or individuals within it." Wikipedia

What does that mean in practical terms?

It means that people wield social connections to impact personal and company direction.

Bernice has worked with me for years, and runs a team which reports to me. She said that she would like to cancel one of our projects, and use those resources for a different project. She explains the details, but I'm already on board. I trust Bernice, she has always made great decisions. I say she should go ahead.

That was office politics.

I did not use merit or data to make that decision. I used my social connection to wield my power to impact changes which she (and now I) believed would benefit our organization.

At Amazon, we enshrine some aspects of office politics in our processes. For example, every promotion requires a promotion document. A major section of promotion documents is feedback from (senior) peers. We ask those feedback providers if they support your promotion, and to explain why in writing.

It's a literal translation of social networking to achieve a beneficial change for an individual. It is naive to believe that social networking doesn't play a role in finding feedback providers, or determining what they write.

On one hand, you could argue that this requires favoritism and the worst kinds of kissing up to co-workers. On the other hand, if you can't convince six senior co-workers that you would perform well if given a promotion, perhaps it's reasonable to hold off?

What is the alternative to office politics?

In the imaginary non-politics world that some dream about, we make decisions based on merit. Project A will make more money than Project B, so we will fund Project A. Some person deserves a promotion, so they are given one. In a disagreement between choices X and Y, we examine the data and determine that X is the correct choice.

This merit-based world is impossible. In real life, merit is hard (if not impossible) to measure in most cases.

  • If you're comparing future revenue, everyone's estimation methodology is different, and some people are more or less likely to exaggerate. You can believably estimate the same project to be hugely profitable, or money losing.
  • If you're examining project contributions from individuals for a promotion, everyone's view of who contributed what is individualized and inconsistent. In one co-worker's view, you were useless. In another co-worker's view, you were instrumental.
  • If you're trying to referee a disagreement, both sides will have conflicting interpretations of events. Each side will clearly detail why the other side is unreasonable. They back each argument with their own curated data.

The counterargument is that simple conflicts have data or merit which can be measured. X algorithm is more efficient than Y algorithm. This is true. Basic examples have basic data, and can be measured.

Yet almost all impactful decisions in life are complex, and merit can't be used for decision-making.

The alternative, in use everywhere, is office politics.

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