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As they say, "politics is the exercise of power", and "power is the ability to make things happen in an organisation". I am working on a project which has some overlap and is partially in competition with other projects. Managers at all levels have different ideas about what should happen. I am trying to understand who is supporting whom, what are the networks I should be aware of, to have a clear idea of where support for our idea might come from. My line manager doesn't want me to think about politics at all. Other people told me not to be political. But I think these people might have their own agendas - like everybody else. I have seen what happens when you work hard on a project, ignore the politics, and then get backstabbed by some unforeseen person or project.

I do believe that "ignore politics" is bullshit advice: whether you manage people or build things, politics will determine the allocation of resources to your team or project, but I might be wrong. So, let's ask it this way: "what are the circumstances when ignoring company politics is good advice?"

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    "He who sups with the devil should have a long spoon" - if you meddle in politics against the advice of your manager, you had better know what you are doing. If you have to ask this question, you clearly don't. Observe and learn. The small animals better stay out of sight of the big ones until they themselves have become big enough to feed from the same trough. Alternatively, you may want to concentrate on your work. Still, nothing prevents you from observing and learning. – Captain Emacs May 5 at 10:11
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    Without an evaluation metric, this is quite hard to answer. Personally, I always ignore politics. As a result, I must change jobs often, until I land on a position with little politics. That's fine for me, but might be dicey for others. On the flip side, some people only play politics and will never ignore it. – Jeffrey May 5 at 19:34
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    If you don't want to engage in office politics, don't engage in office politics. If you want to engage in office politics, engage in office politics. If either approach doesn't work at your company, find another job or adjust your strategy. Some people are impressed by fancy words, other people care more about hard data and objective results. Completely ignoring anything is almost always a bad idea though. – Bernhard Barker May 5 at 22:08
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    “I am trying to understand who is supporting whom, what are the networks I should be aware of, to have a clear idea of where support for our idea might come from.” Might your time be better spent trying to understand whether your team's idea is actually best for the company? – Paul D. Waite May 6 at 9:21
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    @Itsme2003 Exactly. It's about not meddling. It's about knowing when something needs to be done (less is more). But it's definitely not about ignoring. – Captain Emacs May 6 at 19:01

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Not paying attention to company politics is always bad advise. If you do not understand the human factor in the decisions which are being made around you, then you are constantly going to run into walls and have no idea why.

But the question is if you should actively engage in workspace politics yourself. Successfully engaging in politics can help you to gain more visibility in the workplace, influence decisions so they are made in ways which benefit your career and to grow your personal network within the company. But unsuccessful engagement achieves nothing but making yourself enemies. So make sure to pick your fights wisely. People who tell you to "ignore politics" might be trying to protect you from wasting time with fighting battles you can not win. Or perhaps they try to prevent you from interfering with their own political goals. Or a mix of both. Anyway, it might be a hint that you should better stand down on this particular matter.

Also, time you spend on company politics is either work-time where you don't do any productive work or your spare-time. The job you are being paid to do is doing your job, not engaging in company politics. And spending more than 40 hours a week with thinking about work can be bad for your mental health. So make sure your priorities are in order.

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    Up voted, but you are describing a very poorly lead company. I feel that needs to be pointed out. – Pete B. May 5 at 17:02
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    @PeteB. Unfortunately, many companies are poorly run and learning how to navigate such companies is definitely important – Bitsplease May 5 at 20:50
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    I don't really agree with company politics needing to be handled in your spare time. If company politics have a direct effect on if and how you are able to do "your job" (e.g. resource allocation, strategic decisions or similar) they do belong to your work time. If you can be completely assured by for example a superior that he will fend all political disputes for you, you need not worry about it and this has shown to be true, then I could agree with it being spare-time (as you're likely doing it for personal gain then), but I doubt this is the common case. – RikuXan May 6 at 1:52
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    @RikuXan: Well, you get paid to do what the company wants you to do. In the case of the OP, the company (represented by his line manager) directly ordered him to "not think about politics at all", so that is not the OP's decision to make (during work time). – Heinzi May 6 at 15:45
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    @PeteB. I'd think in most companies. I can spend half my time creating twice as much value for the set of value-deserving clients i'd like to serve by paying attention to where the currents and winds of politics are leading. If you know something is not going to get traction, drop it. Look for the stuff you can have leveraged by other stuff that is being promoted. Frame your projects with knowledge of the company strategy and managers priority. It preserves your mental health and prevents burnouts by both letting you design your own work-life balance and avoiding sisyphosean tasks. – Stian Yttervik May 7 at 12:00
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"Ignore company politics" can have two meanings depending on context. Walking into situations oblivious of the politics is a terrible idea. You are creating a situation where you are way too likely to shoot yourself in the foot.

When someone says "ignore company politics" it can also mean don't put active effort into leveraging politics. Knowing the lay of the land and actively manipulating the situation to take advantage of it are two different things. Ignoring politics is good advice in organizations where the processes and culture are reasonably efficient and there isn't much competition for resources. If an idea will stand on its own merits and doesn't need a powerful ally to proceed then putting effort into gathering allies to support your idea is a waste of time. In the organization I'm in right now this is mostly the case. I've seen pet projects shut down hard and I've seen projects that nobody was excited about make it through.

The big part of this advice that you may be ignoring is if you are seen actively pursuing goals which appear political you impact your image and your credibility. You really don't want people to question your hidden agenda when you need something from them. This is especially large risk for people who openly talk about workplace politics.

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    +1 for distinction between awareness and active participation. Burying your head in the sand and simply ignoring what is blatant to everyone else is never good. Also there is a distinction between good and bad politics – Anthony May 6 at 16:40
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Even as an outside contractor or consultant, I have to agree broadly with Philipp that it is rarely a good idea to ignore politics.

That isn't to say you should spend your time "stirring the pot", or getting into debates and complex discussions. But, I think your premise is right - you need to be aware of what is going on, who the decision-makers are, what controversies there are and so on.

Additionally, you always owe it to yourself to protect yourself. This means ensuring you are credited for your work, ensuring that people are aware of your contribution and ensuring you don't get blamed for others mistakes.

To that end, I don't think any professional who is looking to progress their career can "ignore politics"

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Lots of good answers already, but I want to address one point in particular:

My line manager doesn't want me to think about politics at all. Other people told me not to be political.

By this, they might just mean: "Stop talking to me about company politics. Leave me out of it." In the case of your line manager, it probably also means: "You spend too much time worrying about company politics; I want you to spend that time doing regular work instead."

A lot of people don't enjoy playing the company politics game and/or don't want to get involved in it. They hear you speculating about who is supporting whom, asking about networks, etc., and they just don't want to participate, for whatever reasons.

Play the game, if you want, but don't gossip, don't let it interfere with the work you are paid to do, and don't brag about it.

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Technically "office politics" could mean important info about who runs the company and how, as you are interpreting it.

But usually, when people say "ignore office politics", what they mean is to ignore irrelevant gossip, petty arguments, childish grudges, empty posturing, and such, that have nothing to do with doing your job (the actual work you are all there to do) and importantly, can't really affect you unless you participate.

Any boss is correct in encouraging any employee to ignore this stuff and focus on their actual work.

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    this is a very good answer. – Monoandale May 7 at 11:02
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The specific answer

Your line manager knows the situation better and wants you to stay back and stay safe, "ignore politics" is just a phase they use. As a non-manager your advices are appreciated but you shouldn't get tangled up because there are understandings among participants that you might not get.

The generic answer

"Ignoring politics" is a inherently a political decision. You want to go this route if you value your workplace stability over the value of your work. You wouldn't get into workplace politics at a summer job, you may not want to get into workplace politics shortly before retiring.
You need to ignore office politics nevertheless when you would rather leave your job than go with one of the proposed solutions, especially if it is illegal and would be incriminating to you (e.g. "Should we outsource medical data processing to a company with a questionable reputation?" "Should we pay dividend before announcing bankruptcy?" or "Should we save on untreated waste disposal?").

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Suppose you have an idea to optimize production.

what are the circumstances when ignoring company politics is good advice?"

You should ignore the the politics when they are just politics, with no substance behind them. You should ignore them when people are hostile. Another way to put this is "stick with the facts."

I am trying to understand who is supporting whom, what are the networks I should be aware of, to have a clear idea of where support for our idea might come from.

This is a good approach. You would want to identify who is hostile to any new ideas so that you present it to them last. You would want to know who would agree with those people no matter what the idea, and present it to them before the hostile person before they are biased. You want to know who is open but skeptical and present it to them almost immediately, so that you can get their feedback and improve your idea. You want to know who else has been championing ideas like it and ask them what objections you can anticipate.

What you don't want to do is introduce new politics or amplify existing politics by: not including someone; waiting until they are on vacation; implementing the idea without getting buy-in; presenting it to someone's manager before presenting it to them. Don't treat anyone differently when the time comes to present it.

From one perspective, this is playing politics. From another perspective, this is acknowledging they exist already and fitting into the world around you to maximize your chance of success.

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But also: what is your job?!"

"Politics" obviously surrounds "every single human activity." So – is this actually "a battle that you have to fight," in order to fulfill your business obligations to the company?

"If it isn't – butt out!" Do your job. Earn your salary. Dazzle your [internal?] customers first, and your managers second. Don't worry about the rest. "It's above your pay grade ..."

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There is no general answer to this and a good amount depends on your job role / you team' job role.

My professional work experience has been in audit / accountancy / compliance and recently, cybersecurity. These roles are considered to be conservative and generally risk averse where following regulations are important as not doing so can have serious consequences such as significant fines, regulatory penalties, etc. In these roles , the importance of company policies is generally less important. Its has been my experience that the more conservative the organization and your role, the less importance of participation in company politics.

I agree with the others who say to understand the business climate of the company and who your allies are in the company. Company politics can be played in positive ways and not have to be negatively applied to put down colleagues. For example in my current role as the team lead on our cybersecurity operations team, I frequently stress the value of our work and try to ensure management is continually aware of how what we are doing is value add for company mission. (security controls engineering, proactive cybersecurity risk management etc.) I am participating in politics but strictly in a beneficial way. I am not tearing down colleagues , but supporting them and strengthening relationships.

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Your manager telling you to not think about politics is a political act. Which means he's told you not to think about that advice. You can't follow advice without thinking about it.

Nonsense is never good advice. Ignore this particular advice but don't be obvious about it.

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