how should a christian respond to office politics
Like it or not, no office is free from politics. Employees engage in politicking activities to compete for bosses’ recognition and subsequent promotions and pay raises, or even to ensure that their jobs are secure. Experience tells us that ‘political skills’ are essential for survival in the office – many talented employees do not get the recognition they deserve because of their inability to navigate through the political landscape in the office. To make matters worse, talented employees are the most likely targets of office politics because they are threats to their colleagues, breeding insecurity in their colleagues and bringing out the worst in them.
What is Office Politics?
Office politics involves gaining power and influence over others for the furtherance of one’s interests, at the expense of others. We often see it in a negative light, about people being two-faced and hypocritical, putting up false appearances, currying favor, or resorting to unethical means to achieve their goals. Skilled office politicians naturally sense those who hold the power in the office, and are good at impression management. They seek to impress those that can help them climb up the corporate ladder. They are also savvy in leveraging information for their own advantage. They distort, withhold, or selectively disclose information to attain what they desire. They are socially adept in forming coalitions and alliances to expand their power bases, and are skilled at making people feel obligated to them by offering friendships and favors.
Management scholars have identified a long list of factors contributing to office politics. The list includes personality differences, resource constraints, perception of unfairness, weak leadership, history of past conflicts and misunderstandings, etc. Apostle James was right when he asked, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” (James 4:1) The cause of office politics is simply self interests.
Our Christian Response to Office Politics
Given the negative connotation of office politics, many Christians have chosen to remain apolitical. To them, being involved in office politics means to be manipulative, deceptive, vicious, or evil, and is therefore clearly incompatible with Christian teachings. They believe they should take a back seat and let their politically adept colleagues get ahead, whilst suffering in silence, and being falsely made scapegoats by their political colleagues when something goes wrong which they are not responsible for.
Is it possible to be politically savvy in the office without compromising our Christian values?
The Bible does not explicitly talk about office politics. However, there are biblical examples on how faithful servants of God applied appropriate influence tactics to fulfill God’s purposes. One good example can be found in Nehemiah chapter 1 to 6, where Nehemiah navigated through the Persian officials’ opposition and political moves when he wanted to rebuild the wall in Jerusalem:
Nehemiah prayed and asked God to grant him the king’s favor (1:5).
He put on a sad countenance to attract the king’s attention to his grievances (2: 2-3).
He asked the king to authorize the building project by issuing him letters to the various officials (2:7-8).
He made appropriate responses to his opponent’s ridicules (2:19-20; 4:1-5).
He demonstrated his readiness to fight his enemies head-on (4:6-15).
He attended to the morale issues of his team and won their support (5:1-13).
He fostered loyalty by not burdening his team with supplies that he was entitled to as their governor (5:14-19).
He did not fall into his enemies’ trap to derail him from building the wall (6:1-4).
He resisted his opponents’ pressure to intimidate him (6:5-19).
Being Wise as Serpents and Innocent as Doves
Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 10: 16: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves”. Jesus reminds us that we are living in a fallen world, and therefore need to be on guard against the hostilities of others.
Jesus does not intend for us to be losers or gullible pawns in the office. He wants us to be wise like the serpent – the wisdom of the serpent lies in its ability to keep still, and strike decisively at the opportune moment to overcome its enemies. At the same time, Jesus calls us to be harmless like doves, even though it may make us look vulnerable. As Christ’s disciples we must be prepared to be disadvantaged because we do not follow the norms of this fallen world. We rely on God’s wisdom to stand firm and to act boldly to accomplish God’s purposes. In short, we have to find the balance between firmness and mercy, boldness and kindness, and to exercise the right traits at the right times.
Set Our Minds on Things Above and Not on Earthly Things
As followers of Christ, we should constantly remind ourselves that while we are in the world, we are not of the world (Jn 17:14). Moreover, we are called to set our minds on things above and not on earthly things (Col 3:2). At the workplace, people engage in self-serving politics to gain undeserved advantages and privileges at the expense of others. If we are to be effective witnesses for Christ in the office, we must behave differently from the ‘office politicians’ who care primarily about themselves. Instead, we have to put the interests of others above our own (Phil 2:3-4), especially their salvation.
We Are Called to be the Salt and Light in our Workplace
As Christians, we are called to be the “salt” and “light” of the world (Matt 5:13-15), and this certainly includes our workplace. Office politics often lead to undesirable consequences such as workplace injustice, hostilities, discriminations, hurts and stress, etc. As salt has healing properties, we have the responsibility to bring healing to our workplace, to help undo the wounds caused by the politics in our organizations. We are also called to help transform the culture of our workplace for the better where possible. In Old Testament times, God placed servants like Nehemiah at the right place at the right time to fulfill His purpose. In our modern times, God continues to place some of us in positions to be able to transform our workplace for the better. Sometimes this may be achieved by shedding light on dark politics in the office.
Christians are called to do the will of God. It is important that we hear God accurately and obey His will. We may find ourselves in situations at the office where it is necessary to engage in prevailing office politics. However, we must always be mindful that our involvement in office politics has to be bounded by the grace and mercy of God. Where such situations arise, we should act firmly and boldly – since God has given us a spirit of power, love and self-control (2 Tim 1: 7). Moreover, it is displeasing to God if we rejoice when our enemies fall and stumble (Prov. 24:17-18). God wants us to love our enemies and to pray for them (Matt 5:44). Before we make any political move at the office, we must be brutally honest with ourselves and to God: Are we acting to serve our self interests or God’s purpose? In deciding on our course of action, we must always strive to keep a clear conscience before God and man (Acts 24:16). -
Author: Dr Gilbert Tan (Gilbert worships and is connect group leader at the Saturday Service. He is Associate Professor of Strategic Management Education, Lee Kong Chian School of Business, Singapore Management University.)