Political Types at Work
Robert W. Boozer & Monique Forte
Office politics is a fact of work life. But, what is office politics? As might be expected, people give different responses to this question depending upon their psychological type preferences. This paper explores these type effects by asking two basic questions. First, how do the different types perceive office politics generally? Second, how do the different types perceive themselves as acting politically at work?
Politics, Ideals, and Frustrations
The research literature on organizational politics presents a variety of definitions for the topic (e.g., Drory & Romm, 1990). This literature also presents a number of models that itemize the kinds of factors likely to be related to political phenomena at work (e.g., Ferris & Kacmar, 1992). For this paper, however, we employ a uniquely typological framework which views politics at work as involving the enactment (“good” politics) or frustration (“bad” politics) of organizational ideals. Thus, to better understand office politics it is necessary to review the key organizational ideals that different psychological types espouse.
Ideal Organizations for the Mental Functions Groups
For years we have been asking the mental functions groups (ST, SF, NF, and NT) to “Draw something that represents your ideal organization.” The results are highly consistent when viewed thematically (cf. Mitroff & Kilmann, 1975).
The ST groups draw something that expresses the ideal organization metaphorically as “machine.” The drawings may actually depict machines (computers, cars, clocks and so on) or the traditional organization chart, but invariably the organizational characteristics represented suggest the ideal organization is machine-like—stable, hierarchical, efficient, logical, impersonal, and so on.
The drawing on the left illustrates ST organizational ideals in the organizational "pyramid". The traditional chain of command can be seen in the hierarchy moving down from the university President to Dean to Professor and then to Student. The thunder cloud contains the word "uncertainty" and the sun contains the word "guarantee". These themes repesent the ST preference for organizational life - roles, policies, procedures and so on - to be clearly specified.
The SF groups draw something that expresses the ideal organization as a “team.” The drawings frequently depict happy people working together for a common goal. Although the SF drawings don’t always literally depict people, the theme remains one of cooperation, harmony, and practicality in the service of accomplishing team goals. Within this theme is a clear recognition that both the individual and the group are equally important. One of the more interesting themes frequently presented in SF drawings is that of unity in diversity; SF drawings often will depict a unifying goal or purpose--yet each individual is portrayed as unique.The drawing above right illustrates these themes. The different organizations all involve practical (S) pursuits: teaching children, owning a home or a business, and so on. The organizations also involve working directly with people (F).
The NF groups draw something that expresses the ideal organization as reflecting “culture” or the “human spirit.” Quite often there is a strong theme of the interconnectedness of all forms of life and thus the appreciation of nature as an aspect of the ideal organization. As to ideal organizational process, the NFs emphasize values, harmony, innovation, change, growth and development. The NF drawings range from highly abstract swirls of color to more concrete depictions of earth and nature.
The drawing to the left clearly depicts a source of "spirits" but NF teams often espouse values of enthusiasm, fun, and play. Further discussison with an NF team often reveals that not only is this a party scene, but the establishment is their business, too. And, everyone works to help everyone else. Leadership tends to be decentralized, people take on roles as the need arises. Leadership thus is "emergent" leadership in the N (possibilities) F (for people) organization.
The NT groups draw something that expresses the ideal organization as involving issues of “power,” and especially brainpower. Quite frequently the drawings literally are of brains. A predominant theme seems to be intellectual and problem-solving competence (see also: Keirsey & Bates, 1978). However, even when the NTs draw something that looks like an ST drawing—e.g., a machine or traditional organization chart—further inquiry indicates the NTs are likely to be driving the machine or running the organization (and thus are in the power positions).
See the little brain in the drawing on the right? In this case, the brain is just one of many possibilities (N) of this organization. We also see words relating imagination and creativity (also N). The scales represent justice and logic (T). The "spider-web" look of the drawings is common to NTs, indicating the world of logical (T) interconnections (N).
Politics Defined Relative to Organizational Ideals
More recently we have been asking the mental functions groups to “Draw something that represents a situation at work which you would consider to be political.” Rather than ask groups directly to define office politics, we have been using the drawing exercise to generate themes and issues. The results to date suggest people define work situations as political largely to the extent that the situations represent the enactment or frustration of typologically defined organizational ideals.
The ST groups define work situations as political to the extent that factors in the situation enact or frustrate the accomplishment of ST ideals such as impersonality, efficiency, hierarchy and so on. And, what seems to be a major source of frustration is the “subjective.” For example, one group of ST business students drew a pyramid with steps on each side of the pyramid. On each step was a box that contained a stick figure human. This human element—and thus personal aspects of work (including personal agendas)—constituted office politics for this group of STs. Another ST group working in county government represented office politics with a set of three arithmetic equations. The first equation was “1 + 1 = 2” representing the ideal of impersonality, logic, and efficiency. The second equation was “(smiley face) + 1 = 6.” The smiley face was saying “Looking good today.” This second equation represented the personal and subjective aspect of work that throws the original equation out of balance and thus constitutes “bad” politics (at least for the STs). The third equation was again “1 + 1 = 2.” Order, stability, and so on had been restored by the ST efforts to reduce office rumors, chitchat, and gossip. Such efforts thus constitute “good” politics from the ST perspective.
The SF groups view as political those factors that enact or frustrate their ideal of supportive, team-oriented work. In general, “bad” political situations for SFs seem to reflect the “unhappy team.” For example, a group of SF women attending a conference for executive women drew a team with four stick figures. One of these figures had an angry look and was labeled “trouble.” Another figure represented the manager who had turned her back on the situation. The two other figures representing the other team members both had frowns on their faces representing their unhappiness with the manager’s unwillingness or inability to maintain team harmony. Another group of SFs in a service organization represented politics in their office as a win-lose game with two sides competing for the same resources. The essence of the game was “plowing down people” wherein people’s feelings got hurt. These SFs saw themselves as playing the roles of referees and coaches, trying to maintain team harmony and support for each other—and thus engaged in “good” politics.
The NF groups define as political those organizational phenomena that enact or restrict personal expression and development. In many ways, these types appear to experience “bad” organizational politics as “suffocating.” One group of NFs reflected this theme by drawing a stick figure human trapped within a box. Another NF group drew a stick figure human that had fallen over, exhausted from the game of office politics. A group of NF students clearly represented the theme of “restricted expression” with their three-part, pyramidal drawing. At the bottom of the pyramid was “muck” which was the day-to-day rules and activities that had to be followed. In the middle of the page, superimposed on the pyramid, was a bar blocking access to the top of the pyramid. This bar represented “bad” office politics. At the top of the pyramid were sunshine and flowers representing “the ideal situation in which all is at harmony with the universe.” Negative politics in essence thus blocked the attainment of NF ideals, whereas efforts to support the ideal are seen as “good politics.”
The NT groups tend to define organizational politics as those things that tend to enact or frustrate the expression of knowledge-based and problem-solving competency. For example, one group of female NTs represented “bad” politics by drawing—in their words—a “bimbo” co-worker who had received rewards whereas it was the NTs in the drawing who actually had done the work. Further, NTs seem to perceive organizational politics—good or bad—as “just the way things are” to a greater extent than do the other mental functions groups. Given that NTs tend to express their ideal organization in terms of power issues, it shouldn’t be surprising that NTs appear to view politics at work as somewhat less a frustration of ideals than do other mental functions groups. For example, one NT group of managers represented their ideal organization as a matrix organization. When asked to draw a situation at work reflecting office politics, the group took the drawing of their ideal organization and simply put keyholes at the intersections of functional and product/service departments in the matrix structure. Their interpretation was that office politics sometimes “lock out” things but at other times can be the “key” that opens new possibilities. Another NT group—managers in a county government—drew organizational politics as “Countyopoly.” This group saw organizational politics as a game (and thus the play on the game Monopolyâ). Moreover they described the game as energizing and enjoyable. (Interestingly, the group that focused on abstract structure was predominantly INT whereas the group that viewed politics as fun game was predominantly ENT.)
In summary, how people conceptualize office politics seems strongly influenced by their mental function preferences. Further, what is perceived as political is defined in terms of organizational ideals as conceived by the different mental functions groups.
Type Dynamics and Political Style
Whereas the mental function pairings influence what is seen as political, type dynamics seems to help explain how people behave politically. Further, a type dynamics perspective offers interesting ideas on what might constitute a type’s “normal” political style and what might constitute an “abnormal” style.
Normal Political Style as the Expression of Normal Type Dynamics
As a part of another study, we conducted individual interviews with 15 people representing 9 different psychological types and all 8 preferences. All individuals worked for the same organization and represented all levels of the organization, both managerial and non-managerial.
The interviews covered a variety of topics related to office politics and each took about an hour to conduct. One set of questions asked the individuals to discuss their perceptions of themselves as office politicians. Results from this part of the interview suggest that—to the extent people are willing to view themselves as acting politically at work—their political style can be understood largely as an expression of type dynamics. The case of “Tom” (ISFJ) and “Frank” (ENTP) illustrates this perspective.
Tom and Frank are administrators who work together, have known each other for more than ten years, and have had a good outside-of-work friendship. The interviews with Tom and Frank occurred while they were involved with an important project, one that involved significant organizational changes. During the interviews the interviewees were asked to “think of someone whom you consider to be an office politician and then describe this person.” Although not asked for names, Tom and Frank named and described each other.
Frank described himself as able to play office politics (“I can do it…”), but largely constrained from doing so in his current job. The project, however, was one place where he felt he could “politick.” In this case, Frank noted he wanted “a truly innovative approach” to be developed. Frank saw his role as “bringing programs and proposals” to the group, to “make my views known.” Frank, noted Tom “would try to sell ideas while we were still coming up with ideas,” which frustrated Frank. “I wouldn’t do that.”
Tom described himself as a reluctant player of office politics, engaging in such behavior as a necessity: “I have to be somewhat manipulative…to get people to do something they don’t want to do.” Tom saw his political style as one that focused on “developing interpersonal alliances…creating relationships of trust where we can empathize with each other’s goals.” Tom was committed to the new program, but also frustrated with the program committee (including Frank) noting the “committee ‘blue skied’ too much. “I went home and drew up a plan and brought it to the next meeting.”
The case of Frank and Tom illustrates at least three points. First, both individuals discussed their political styles using terminology characteristic of the mental function each extraverts. Frank’s style expresses his dominant extraverted intuitive preferences (“innovative approach,” “bring proposals to the group,” etc.). Tom’s style reflects his auxiliary extraverted feeling (“create relationships of trust”).
Second, what each sees as negative politics in the other is type behavior that frustrates the enactment of preferred expressions of one’s own type (or, as discussed above, one’s organizational ideals). Frank sees Tom’s plan as trying to sell an idea before all possibilities have been explored and thus Tom’s preference for closure (J) is seen as frustrating Frank’s preference for more possibilities (N). Tom sees Frank’s “blue sky” behavior (N) as not in keeping with Tom’s preference for getting things done (i.e., getting people to do something they may not want to do). Frank’s preference for more possibilities (N) is seen as frustrating Tom’s preference for closure (J).
Third, both Frank’s and Tom’s behavior in this situation—which both defined as political—reflects the natural expression of their type dynamics. Though not discussed in the interviews, it does appear that they implicitly were acting politically and that this political behavior constituted good politics for each of them, typologically defined.
In summary, the case of “Frank” and “Tom” suggests one’s normal political style at work is an expression of one’s type preferences, dynamically expressed.
Abnormal Political Style as the Expression of Type Dynamics Under Stress
The literature on office politics is replete with examples of negative or “dirty” politics—backstabbing, information manipulation, lies, nepotism, sabotage and so on. Clearly there is a kind of negative politics that transcends our definition of such politics as the frustration of organizational ideals—where such frustration arises from a conflict with another type’s normal expression. An interesting question is whether or not psychological type dynamics is in any way associated with this kind of negative politics.
One possibility is that highly stressful conditions might result in an extreme expression of one’s use of their dominant and auxiliary functions, which, in turn, may be expressed in negative political acts. The type literature does suggest that, under stress, the normal expression of preferences may become extreme, and this extreme expression of the preference may carry a more negative tone. For example, Pearman and Albritton (1997) contrast the normal expression of the INTJ’s auxiliary ET with its expression under stress as “critical, proactive and systematic, reasonable and analytical” vs. “arrogant…aggressive, opportunistic,” respectively. Such terms as aggressive and opportunistic suggest a more negative politics.
Similarly, Delunas (1992) suggests the different temperament types may engage in what she terms “survival games” when threatened and under severe stress. Thus, for example, the NT Rationals play the Robot survival game, of which That’s Illogical and Super-Intellectual are variants. Deluca’s description of these variants reflects a hyper-manifestation of the thinking function. In the That’s Illogical game, the thinking function is used as a defense mechanism to dismiss other people, other perspectives and so on as not logical. In the Super-Intellectual variant, the thinking function is used as a defense mechanism by making overly complex arguments and overly intellectualized statements. Both variants suggest aggressive, and passive-aggressive, tendencies that clearly could be manifest as negative political actions.
A second possibility is that that highly stressful conditions might result in an inferior function episode, which, in turn, may be expressed in negative political acts. Such episodes often are characterized by emotionalism and aggressive acts (Quenk, 1993) and thus provide an emotional dynamics that seems conducive to engaging in negative political acts.
One limitation of both these perspective is that, while attractive, they remain hypotheses and little research exists to help substantiate them. A second limitation is that definitions attributed to negative politics in the management literature suggest a more Machiavellian perspective in that such politics arise from a conscious, rational choice process. The two hypotheses discussed, however, are grounded in psychic process where the expression of type, and intentions, is much less under conscious control. Further theoretical development clearly seems necessary in this area.
Delunas, E. (1992), Survival Games Personalities Play. Carmel, CA: Sunink Publications.
Drory, A. & T. Romm (1990), “The Definition of Organizational Politics”, Human Relations, Vol. 43, pp. 1133-1154.
Ferris, G. R. & K. M. Kacmar (1992), “Perceptions of Organizational Politics”, Journal of Management, Vol. 18, pp. 93-116.
Keirsey, D. & Bates, M. (1978), Please Understand Me: Character and Temperament Types, Del Mar, CA, Prometheus Nemesis Books.
Mitroff, I. I. & R. H. Kilmann (1975), “Stories Managers Tell: A New Tool for Organizational Problem Solving,” Management Review, July, 1975, pp. 18-28.
Pearman, R. R. & Albritton, S. C. (1997), I’m Not Crazy, I’m Just Not You. Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black.
Quenk, N. (1993). Beside Ourselves. Palo-Alto, CA: Davies-Black.
This paper is a revised version of the paper published in the Proceedings of the APT International Conference, Phoenix, AZ, 1999.