Research Spotlight: Organizational Politics and Job Performance: Proactivity as a Buffer

Have you ever worked in an organization where you saw employees flatter important people just to get on their good side or where employees made friends with someone to get them to support a project? Have you seen people get promoted because they are well connected but don’t seem qualified? If so, you experienced organizational - or office - politics. Organizational Politics can take many forms and affect all levels of the organizational hierarchy. They are social influence behaviors intended to maximize self-interest.

How does it feel to experience office politics? Do you experience these situations negatively or do you see them as a challenge and enjoy figuring out “how to play the game”? Research shows that employees experiencing highly political work environments report negative outcomes including burnout, job tension, job anxiety, job dissatisfaction, turnover intentions, and low levels of organizational commitment. Research looking at the effect of politics on job performance shows mixed results; sometimes high perceived politics is related to low performance, but not always. Why? This is what Dr. Elicker and Aimee King, a graduate student in the Industrial and Organizational Psychology program, examined. They specifically investigated Proactive Personality as a potential buffer to the stress experienced in political environments. Proactive individuals are continuously looking for better ways to do things; they show initiative, identify opportunities, act on them, and persist to a favorable result. Hence, the researchers expected an individual’s level of proactive personality would play a key role in the extent to which a political environment negatively affected work outcomes.

The researchers found exactly this. Perceptions of politics had adverse direct effects on employee stress, morale, and performance, but high levels of proactive personality buffered the negative effects on stress and performance. Highly proactive individuals experienced less stress in response to workplace politics. In addition, job performance of highly proactive individuals was unaffected by politics; performance decreased in highly political environments for individuals low or average in proactivity. It appears that proactive personality serves as a means to understand and effectively manage an employee’s work environment. Instead of passively accepting the current conditions, an employee who is highly proactive will identify what it takes to be successful and alter his or her behavior accordingly. Notably, individuals can be trained to approach work situations in more proactive ways, to recognize critical events, analyze the impact of those events, and develop strategies to deal with the events.

This research was presented at a professional conference and is currently under review for publication.

King, A.E. & Elicker, J.D. (2010, April). Perceptions of politics, proactive personality, and performance. Presentation at the Meetings of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Atlanta, GA.