In many corporate settings, playing office politics can be as important to getting ahead as actually being good at what you do. Knowing whom you need to befriend and whose bad side you don’t want to be on can certainly make a difference in one’s own career advancement, but it’s also widely believed that good political skills improve an employee’s performance in the workplace. Indeed, particularly in executive roles, politics can be an integral part of the job. But Matt Palmquist at Strategy+Business has discovered some research suggesting that there’s a point of diminishing returns where being too good at office politics starts to undermine a worker’s productivity and hurt the whole company:
The authors conducted two separate studies of early- and mid-career employees (reasoning that people at different stages of their professional lives would have varying incentives and abilities to capitalize on their political acumen). The participants worked in a variety of jobs spanning the manufacturing, service, and social work sectors. The authors surveyed them on a wide spectrum of subjects related to office politics, including their tendency to get coworkers to like them, time devoted to social networking, and how they made themselves look sincere to coworkers. In turn, each participant’s job performance was rated by a formal, company-led evaluation or via a survey of their supervisor and colleagues. The study draws on a proposed psychological principle, introduced in 2013, called the too-much-of-a-good-thing (TMGT) effect. This principle has been applied to areas such as firm growth rate to explain how companies can expand too quickly for their own good. In the case of employees’ political aptitude and their workplace productivity, the effect takes the form of an upside-down U, the authors write — up to a certain point, employees’ on-the-job performance improves with their increasing political skill. But productivity drops off sharply if they enjoy too much influence over their colleagues.
The main reason for this dropoff is that there’s only so much scheming, self-promoting, and dividing-and-conquering you can do before your co-workers get wise to your game. After a while, a politician’s colleagues will figure out what they’re doing and become suspicious and resentful of them. Playing politics also means sacrificing relationships with those of your peers you must throw under the bus, as well as those who don’t approve of your dog-eat-dog tactics. And after all, time spent politicking is time spent not doing work.
The researchers’ findings do come with a caveat, Palmquist notes: Politically skilled employees who succeed at forming close ties with their superiors are somewhat protected from the negative effects of too much influence peddling. So maybe the lesson of this study is not to play office politics unless you’re really good at it.