Study: Playing Office Politics Really Doesn't Pay

In a study that challenges conventional wisdom, two researchers determine that deftly playing office politics has a tendency to backfire.

Conventional wisdom would lead us to believe that people who succeed in the knock-down, drag-out arena of office politics are just as successful at obtaining raises, promotions, and other concessions. Apologies to all you neo-Machiavellis out there, but that conventional wisdom is flawed, according to a pair of German psychologists. As reported by the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog, savvy politicians might actually be at a disadvantage in the workplace:

"Study authors Ingo Zettler and Jonas Lang noted a conundrum in their field: Researchers treat political skill as a uniform good, the more the better, yet a meta-analysis of relevant research (PDF) found a spotty relationship between more political skill and improved outcomes like job performance."

Zettler and Lang's study, published in Applied Psychology, points to two key reasons why office politicians tend to be poor workers. First, office politics breeds distrust. Smooth operators thus tend to alienate their peers. That ends up damaging a workplace's collaborative atmosphere and results in diminished productivity from the office politician.

Second, office politics is addicting. Just think about how gossip spreads in the workplace, even when you try and commit yourself to not being an agent of information. The same goes for persistent office politicians who often slip too deeply into the game at the expense of their job performance. 

Zettler and Lang conducted a pair of studies that confirmed their assertions, though Alex Fradera (who authored the BPS Research Digest piece) notes that the research was not without its flaws. Still, the findings are on solid ground: Those who are intermediately savvy in office politics fare much better than those who are extremely political. Unsurprisingly, people at the other end of the scale without much political skill found similar struggles to their extremely savvy peers.

So is this a lesson in moderation? Probably. It might also just be a warning that office politics can be poison to those who devote too much of themselves to playing the game. At the end of the day, the best way to protect your job is not to kiss butt all the time, but instead by focusing on your work performance.

Read more at BPS Research Digest.

Below, TIME Magazine's Jeffrey Kluger analyzes the narcissistic tendencies of major political figures. Hey, if office politics doesn't work out for you, you can always consider being president:

Photo: jorgeantonio / iStock

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