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    Thriving amid office politics requires reality check

    Miami Beach, Fla. — Making office or organizational politics work for your group requires acceptance, transparency and relationship-building, an expert says.

    “Politics are part of every group or organization,” says Diane R. Baker, M.D., dermatologist in private practice in Lake Oswego, Ore. However, she adds, the fact that some politics are productive and necessary for meeting group goals initially may appear counterintuitive.

    Definitions of politics run the gamut — from any struggle for power in any group setting, to the ways in which people recognize and reconcile differences to get things done in business or volunteer settings.

    Moreover, “In every group, some people have more power for a variety of reasons — not necessarily because they’re leaders, but perhaps because they’ve been there a long time and know the history of the group or organization” better than others, she says.

    Additionally, “People within an organization have different interests. They will work to satisfy their own interests, as well as those of the organization. Politics aren’t a bad thing necessarily, because your interests might be the same as the organization’s.” By the same token, Dr. Baker says, someone’s desire to become president of an organization provides a valuable service to the group in a way that other members might be unwilling or unable to.

    The greater good

    Politics only becomes a negative force when it involves gaining advantage at the expense of others, or of the greater good, she says. In this regard, she says, there’s a big difference between “dirty politics,” or self-serving schemes that advance one person’s interests regardless of what’s good for the group, and “clean” politics. The latter type of politics may feature struggles between individuals who have the organization’s best interests at heart but disagree on how to serve these interests, or perhaps even about what those interests are.

    “That’s actually what we want in an organization,” a free-flowing discussion regarding shared decisions that involve the good of the group, Dr. Baker says. Though it’s not always obvious whether a maneuver represents self-interest or not, she says, “Often we have a gut feeling about that.”

    Furthermore, Dr. Baker says that attempting to avoid politics “doesn’t work very well. Whether you’re comfortable with it or not, politics will always be there in group settings. Pericles said that just because you don't take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won’t take an interest in you.”

    Role recognition

    It’s also important to recognize the role or roles played by each member of a group and how those roles may help or hinder an organization’s ability to achieve its goals, she says. Group members may assume one particular role — such as devil’s advocate — most of the time, adds Dr. Baker, or they may play different roles depending on the discussion or circumstances. Examples of roles that group members assume are those of the “dominator,” the “distractor,” the “compromiser,” the “brainstormer” and the “blocker.”

    To illustrate the effect of different role players and politics on group dynamics, attendees at a Forum on Leadership held at the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) annual meeting participated in a mock task force discussion of the appropriateness or inappropriateness of the establishment of a category of membership in the AAD for mid-level practitioners who have been trained by and are supervised and employed by board-certified dermatologists. Attendees role-played pro and con positions, while other attendees observed the role players and attempted to discern the hidden agendas behind their pro or con positions.

    Regardless of your role in a group or organization, Dr. Baker says, a better understanding of the inevitability of politics, an acceptance of the differences in motivation of group members and an appreciation of the usefulness of diverse opinions about methods to achieve goals all contribute to the success of the organization.

    Disclosures: Dr. Baker reports no relevant financial interests.

    John Jesitus
    John Jesitus is a medical writer based in Westminster, CO.

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