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Can Networking at the Office Become Too Much of a Good Thing?

It’s generally presumed that employees who accrue political power at work are higher performers. But those who schmooze a little less are actually the best at their jobs.

Bottom Line: It’s generally presumed that employees who accrue political power at work are higher performers. But those who schmooze a little less are actually the best at their jobs.

In every office, some employees carry a little more sway than others. Perhaps they’ve amassed enough political capital in the workplace to trade favors with colleagues and persuade supervisors to see things from their point of view. Maybe they can schmooze their way through a sales negotiation or exploit relationships with support staff to smooth the progress of a budget meeting.

Recently, some research has suggested that employees who exhibit this type of political proficiency in the workplace also perform better on the job. After all, if politically savvy employees can network more effectively and rally support across different factions of their department or company, it stands to reason that they also have the ability to exert more positive influence over firm-wide affairs.

But a new study from researchers in Germany and the Netherlands cautions against believing this conventional wisdom, and finds a downside to employees’ excessive political efficacy. Although an employee’s ability to play politics in the office can definitely benefit him or her to some extent, too much power brokering around the watercooler or during an off-site workshop will eventually backfire — undermining the company’s productivity as a result. Overall, employees with average levels of political skill do the best at their jobs.

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.

Productivity drops off sharply if employees enjoy too much influence over their colleagues.

Obviously, those on the low end of the scale (the beginning of the U) lack the necessary attributes to bond with colleagues and improve their work by asserting their political influence. But for those with an overabundance of political clout, the simplest explanation is that their colleagues interpret their ever-increasing political goals as deriving from self-interest rather than teamwork, and suspect them of being self-serving or trying to play colleagues against one another.

In addition, garnering political influence requires the expenditure of significant social costs — buttering up one colleague at the expense of another — which is increasingly frowned upon by modern workplaces. Employees who invest too much time and energy in cultivating social links might also be distracted from their regular professional obligations, and their on-the-job performance could slump as a result.

But politicking at work does have one benefit, presuming workers choose their target correctly. Building close ties with supervisors mitigates the negative effect of having too much political skill, the authors found, presumably because employees who are seen as valuable by higher-ups have translated their political acumen into a tangible benefit: namely, having the boss’s ear or gaining access to privileged meetings or discussions. Employees who fostered close bonds with their bosses seemed to be somewhat immune from the backlash against those with too much political skill — a close working relationship with a supervisor tended to result in higher performance rates and lessened the effect of both low and high levels of workplace influence.

The fact that there isn’t a simple equation to describe the role of workplace politics shows that managers need to think more carefully about the issue, which has begun to receive serious attention from researchers only in the past decade or so. Firms should consider whether to integrate some measurement of political ambition into their questionnaires and tests for potential hires, as there appears to be a strong link between low, medium, and high levels of political skill and on-the-job performance.

Source:Employees’ Political Skill and Job Performance: An Inverted U-Shaped Relation?” by Ingo Zettler (University of Tübingen) and Jonas W.B. Lang (Maastricht University), Applied Psychology, July 2015, vol. 64, no. 3 

Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

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