Leading the Way

Navigating organizational politics

organizational politics political listen selfaware relationships help promote

Editor’s note: At American Nurse Today, we believe every nurse can be a leader. This article is the first in a series by Rose Sherman, founder of the Emerging RN Leader blog (www.emergingrnleader.com). Rose will contribute articles on a regular basis to help nurses achieve their leadership potential.

Maria Sanchez, an assistant nurse manager in critical care, is asked to accept a temporary position as task force coordinator for her unit’s efforts to receive a Beacon Award for Excellence from the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses.

The work of the task force goes well, and the unit is almost ready to submit its application. Then, in a meeting with her director, Maria learns that submission for the Beacon Award is no longer an organizational priority; she’ll be reassigned to her assistant nurse manager position. Stunned, she asks why; the director tells her organizational politics led to the decision. Maria feels confused and angry that the award is no longer deemed a priority.

Present in all work settings, organizational politics can stymie or kill an initiative. Sometimes, this occurs because key stakeholders weren’t involved in the initial decision making. Professional jealousy or poor timing also can play a role. Key leaders may rethink the wisdom of the timing a few weeks or months after giving a project the green light to move ahead.

The organization as a political system

Organizational politics refers to the behavior of an individual or group to promote their own self-interests, sometimes at the expense of others or even the organization itself. Understanding and navigating organizational politics in your work setting can be challenging. To help meet the challenge, I suggest you view the workplace as a political system where employees at all levels bring their own interests, desires, and needs. Within the context of these diverse interests, politics are bound to arise.

Why do people play political games? Because in many cases, it gets them what they want. Early in my career, a wise mentor told me, “The game you’re watching isn’t always the game being played.” She was referring to the political goings-on beneath the surface of a unit, a department, or an organization. Things may not be how or what they seem; individuals may be having conversations that aren’t transparent to the rest of the group. Disconnects may exist between what’s being discussed and the decisions being made. Group involvement may be only token, with the agenda already set or deals already negotiated. Also, group leaders may reject a good idea simply because it’s raised by
a staff member they view in a negative light.


Organizational politics can be hard to decipher and in some cases is learned only by trial and error. It can become negative when individuals or groups act without regard to others’ well-being. In such circumstances, don’t be surprised to see gossip, “gotcha”-type manipulation, and blaming.

Maneuvering the political maze

Understanding the politics of your organization or unit can promote your professional success. Sometimes nurses decide to distance themselves from politics, only to find they have trouble achieving some of their goals. So beware of trying to fly solo.

How do you navigate your way through workplace politics? Follow the recommendations below.

Observe and listen

Observation is the most important navigational tool. Determine how your unit is perceived within the larger organization. Watch how decisions are made on your unit; examine group alliances and social relationships.

Identify areas of conflict on your unit. Which staff members seem competitive or jealous? How does your leader respond to or influence organizational politics? Who are the real stakeholders? Who has the most influence on decisions? Sometimes the person with the formal power isn’t the one with the greatest influence. Through observation, you can better identify potential points of resistance to your ideas and figure out how to navigate around these blockades.

Develop strong self-awareness

Typically, emotionally intelligent nurses have more success navigating organizational politics because of their strong self-awareness. Even in highly specialized units, staff members may have widely diverse opinions on professional topics and perceptions about others’ expertise. So try to get a clear sense of who you are, how you might differ from others in your group, how others perceive you, and how their perceptions can create barriers for you. Also, know that not everyone may agree with you.

Build collaborative relationships

Organizational politics can have an unpleasant side—brown-nosing, backstabbing, glory-hogging, and outright lying. To build a successful career, you need to maintain integrity and a good reputation while building strong relationships within your unit and organization. In highly politically charged environments, you need trusted colleagues with whom you can discuss difficult situations—colleagues who will give you honest feedback. Equally important, make sure others see you as someone they can trust, someone who keeps confidential information to herself.

Use tact when promoting yourself and your unit

Because workplaces are inherently competitive, make sure you perform your job well and that others can see this in a measurable way. Go above and beyond what’s expected—for instance, by leading a task force or committee. Self-promotion can be a slippery slope; it can make others resent you and the work you’re trying to accomplish. So give others an opportunity to shine.

Help colleagues

You’ll always need allies. By helping others when they need it, you can leverage good will. Relationships are built on reciprocity. If you have strong work allegiances, people will return a favor if you need one, such as offering support for a project or initiative.

Where leaders promote transparency, intellectual honesty, teamwork, and open debate, political game-playing is less common. Nonetheless, you’ll never be able to escape workplace politics completely. To avoid being caught off guard, learn how to both anticipate and manage negative politics.

Visit www.AmericanNurseToday.com for a complete list of references.

Rose O. Sherman is an associate professor of nursing and director of the Nursing Leadership Institute at the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida.

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