Baffled by Office Politics? Read a Novel! | Demystifying Human Motivation

Maneuvering. Backbiting. Elbow rubbing. It’s the stuff of office intrigue, the tactics some colleagues and bosses use to increase their influence, gain power, and feather their own nest.

Office politics can go from benign to vicious. There’s nothing new about it, except perhaps each player’s ingenuity. There’s actually nothing wrong with it, unless, of course, it comes at our expense!

The plot thickens….

Where there is opportunity to get more, there are those who are eager to get it without concern for others in their path. It wouldn’t be called “office politics” if it weren’t about control and power. What’s mystifying about the characters in these workplace plots is what they’re really after and why.

The “why” factor is what baffles us, making it difficult to counter their maneuverings. Behavior on the surface is always driven from places we can’t see.

Our challenge is to protect ourselves from being damaged or exploited by the office politics playing out around us. That means we need to:

  • Stay alert to what’s going on
  • Avoid being drawn into the games
  • Build alliances with the straight-shooters
  • Learn how to counteract the negatives 

Office politics are like a soap opera episode and you’re in it.

Read between the lines. 

We need to connect the dots in order to understand what’s going on around us. The motivations behind office politics are as diverse as the forms they take like:

  • Subversion—A desire to see someone dethroned
  • Resistance—An effort to derail unwanted change
  • Jealousy/Envy—A selfish obsession to undercut a co-worker’s brand
  • Competitiveness—A compulsion to out-perform coworkers at all costs
  • Resentment—Push-back against authority figures
  • Intimidation—Efforts to protect their position and keep others in their place 

The complex motivations that propel office politics mean that we need to be smart, intuitive, and analytical so we understand them before we take action.

On a high level, here’s a plan:

  • Gather your observations and size up the situation
  • Examine the behavior of others beyond what’s on the surface
  • Figure out what’s stoking those behaviors and the effects to date
  • Fight against your own naiveté. (Everyone isn’t nice like you!)
  • Track what’s going on and then plan your strategy. 

No one teaches you how to read and interpret the “goings on” of people at work. We’re all left to our own devices on that score and sometimes we get the worst of it.

Novels provide clues. 

Fiction writers get us into the heads and hearts of people through the characters they create by placing them in high conflict situations. These characters showcase the full range of human motivation, just like the behaviors you may see at work.

I was an English major working for a Fortune 500 energy company. My ability to navigate office politics came from an understanding human motivation discovered in pages of fiction.

Here are several novels that reveal human motivation in ways that can help us get a handle on the office politics that we might encounter:

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III –Obsessive competitiveness

That Old Ace in the Hole by Annie Proulx—Conflicted sales ethics

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen—Organizational power and politics

Oil by Upton Sinclair—Overwhelming greed

The Help by Kathryn Stockett—Intimidation and control

Rainwater by Sandra Brown—Selfless leadership

Never underestimate the power of the novel to enrich your perspective.

Turn the mystery inside out!

When people know you’re on to them, you have gained some advantage, even if it’s only a bit of personal satisfaction. The key to the office politics dilemma is to protect yourself from it as much as possible with the help your own connections.  

So go ahead and add to your business fitness by picking up a great novel, taking note of how the characters behave. What you find may be just the clues you’ve need!

What novels have given you insights into human motivation? How has the knowledge helped you with office politics? I’d love to hear your story.