Love it or hate it, you’ve got to play it!
“Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal” — Aristotle.
Some people love it, live for it even!
Others hate it and commit their time and energy to the total avoidance of anything even remotely connected to it.
For me, I am somewhere in between and here is why.
Just like in life, on the wider political stage, whether you participate or not (and I’m assuming a democratic environment here), you are impacted by the process and its outcomes. So, there is a limit to which one can actually avoid it. Like all metaphors, this one isn’t perfect. In the strictest sense, organizations are not democracies or dictatorships or anything in between. However, it would be tough to deny the parallels.
I think what people mostly mean by “avoiding politics” is the faction-forming, a**-kissing, cronyism that is usually (though not always) associated with it. It churns the stomach and makes the skin crawl. Most people generally detest things like nepotism (unless they’re the beneficiaries). Personally, I am 100% on board with this. For most people, it is best to avoid organizations with cultures like this.
However, there is the other side of it, which I will call “corporate navigation”. I think it has many other names, shapes, and forms. I am not inventing anything new. It shows up in concepts such as Emotional Intelligence, Stakeholder Management, Negotiation, Leadership, to name a few. This part is unavoidable. It is doing the hard work of understanding the people you work with and for, deciphering their objectives and motivations, and (to the best of your ability) learning to align these to your personal career goals.
Some see this as manipulation. I don’t think it is. The very fabric of society is built on our individual and collective abilities to work together to achieve common goals. So, whether you think you’re playing or not, you are in the game. In fact, to “not play” is a play in itself, and a terrible one at that! The stakes are often high and get even higher as you grow in your career. And from my experience, it doesn’t even matter the size of the organization, politics will show up once there are people.
The good thing is I believe it is a skill that can be acquired. Admittedly, this will be harder for some than others. However, in the interest of your long-term development, professionally and personally, it will serve you well to learn the rules of the game and play it. What it requires is being intentional, time and patience.
One last thought. You reserve the right to opt out. To a certain extent. Where there is no convergence of beliefs and values, you would do well to stand your ground. I am in no way advocating for an abandonment of ethics. However, beyond these bad cases, I can confidently say that there will be no social constructs in which you won’t encounter politics. So in most cases, you will have to wear your grown up underwear and tough it out.
Ultimately, I think you will be best served by building your “political muscle”.