Election years aren’t the only politics out there. Corporate politics are an interesting sort of game. While oft-maligned, they are in many ways ingrained in everything that gets done in a large corporation. Certainly systems and checks can stop undue influence and limit personal bias, but those checks themselves are an indicator, not defeater of that department’s political power.
A helpful way I use to distinguish these politics is by comparing them by intent, one benign and the other malignant.
Benign politics are political exchanges entered into to evaluate and align with diverse needs and perspectives for the benefit of the organization. Politics in this case are conversations where different business units discuss their initiatives and priorities in light of organizational initiatives and priorities. They generally don’t exert undue influence on work progress, but may slow work down from time to time.
In healthy organizations benign is the norm. While wholesome in intent, benign interactions can be burdensome and cause significant time cost. A measure of benign politics is necessary to guarantee proper controls, ownership, and diligence around resources and departmental priorities. These politics can be diminished to some extent by limiting involved parties and articulating roles clearly. A strong network and some early groundwork can really limit disruptions from these political exchanges.
In malignant politics, the intention is self-establishment, control, and blame shifting. These politicians evaluate the potential value a success or failure will have to their personal position or department. Consider this example: a leader of a group was consulted on an exploratory piece of work. His job was to understand the work and provide a resource with current state process knowledge. When a broader group was brought into the second consultation, seeing that his role was a contributor, not controller, he objected to one of the speculative end states and dominated the conversation. In the end his involvement was reduced from secondary contributor to informed third party because he could not function without full control.
Now, you can certainly slip into malignant politics through ignorance and lack of self-awareness, but those who start that way are far more troublesome to witness.