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Navigating Internal Politics and Conflict with Leadership Coaching

How often have you said or heard others say, “I don’t want to get involved in office politics!” Whilst this might be the case, all organisations are political to a greater or lesser extent, and it’s not an option to sit them out (1). We probably all know someone whose career has stalled due to their inability to engage effectively with the internal politics, despite being a hard-working and talented individual, illustrating how necessary it is for leaders to build political expertise if they want to get on in an organisation.

If we accept that politics are a normal and natural part of organisational life, it becomes evident that politically savvy leaders can leverage relationships, make connections and access resources, and therefore more successfully meet their organisation’s leadership challenges and enable the performance and productivity of their teams.

While internal politics varies from one organisation to another, it is true that they are rarely spoken of, and leaders are usually expected to work them out. However, they often transcend hierarchy, shifting and changing over time according to who holds power at any given moment.

As many organisations continue to have a large proportion of their workforce working at home, internal politics may play out differently now than before the pandemic. For example, informal networks may have changed, and there may be more focus on actual job performance rather than perceived competence. In addition, the transition to longer-term remote working, where chance conversations by the coffee machine are no longer the norm, provides leaders with an opportunity to reconsider their approach to engaging in their organisation’s politics (2).

How Can Leaders Enhance Their Skill In Dealing With Internal Politics?

Baddeley and James (3) designed a model that characterises four behaviour styles for engaging in organisational politics – innocent, inept, clever and wise. The style is determined by how an individual is skilled in ‘reading’ the organisational politics and their predisposition to act with integrity or play psychological games (see Figure 1). When used appropriately in different situations, all four styles have a place in creating positive outcomes for leaders, their teams and the organisation.

Figure 1:

model showing how to deal with internal politics

Leaders choose how they navigate internal politics. Good leaders will decide to focus on using their social skills, emotional intelligence, and intuition as a guide, recognising that these strategies help reduce the power of politics within the organisation (4).

How Can Leaders Build Capability In Managing Conflict?

Leaders also need to be adept at managing conflict if they are to successfully deal with internal politics since both are essentially about navigating what we want and what others want. Since no two people have the exact expectations or desires, conflict is a natural part of our interactions with others. Let’s be honest, there is no such thing as a conflict-free workplace, and yet in many organisations, there is fear and avoidance of conflict. Consequently, teams miss out on the many positives that can come from well-managed disagreements, such as greater creativity when problem-solving, opportunities to learn and grow, improved relationships, higher job satisfaction and a more inclusive work environment (5).

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument is designed to measure a person’s behaviour in conflict situations, defined as a situation in which the concerns of two people appear to be incompatible (6). An individual’s behaviour is considered along two dimensions – assertiveness, the extent to which the person attempts to satisfy their own concerns, and cooperativeness, the extent to which they attempt to satisfy the other person’s concerns. The model defines five behavioural modes used for responding to conflict situations (see Figure 2). All five conflict modes have their place, but we tend to rely on some modes more heavily than others. When leaders become aware of their predominant style and actively consider other modes, new possibilities emerge for managing conflict more effectively.

Figure 2:

five behavioural modes used for responding to conflict situations

How Can Leadership Coaching Help Organisations Deal With Internal Politics and Conflict?

Leadership coaching can help leaders and teams expand their capability to read the political landscape. By mapping their own and other people’s predominant ways of dealing with internal politics and conflict using models such as those presented above and then exploring how they might adopt other operating modes, they become more skilled in managing interpersonal relationships.

Working out the internal politics of an organisation, including their pattern of dealing with conflict, can be challenging when leaders change roles, particularly when they move to a different division in the organisation or a new company. Leadership coaching can be especially valuable to help leaders adapt quickly to new cultural norms when they make role or career transitions.

Contact Us Today

Are leaders in your organisation struggling to deal with internal politics or conflict? The Leadership Coaches have skilled coaches who are experienced in working with leaders and teams to help them build capability to manage these successfully. Call us today on 03450 950 480.


  1. Kelley Reardon, K. Office politics isn’t something you can sit out. Harvard Business Review, Jan 2015.

  2. Chamorro-Premuzic, T. and Clark, D. Navigating office politics when there is no office. Harvard Business Review, Oct 2020.

  3. Baddeley, S. and James, K. Owl, fox, donkey or sheep: Political skills for managers. Management Education and Development (1987), 18(1), pp.3-19.

  4. Chamorro-Premuzic, T. The underlying psychology of office politics. Harvard Business Review, Dec 2014.

  5. Gallo, A. Why we should be disagreeing more at work. Harvard Business Review, Jan 2018.

  6. Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument.

Written by Sue Gammons


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