Scoping Out the Political Landscape

 “Chess, insanity and politics have always been inextricably connected.” ~ Sarah Hurst

Political dynamics begin in infancy and continue to pre-school. They intensify in elementary, middle and high school (for students and faculty/staff), and flourish on the college campus (for students as well as faculty and staff), and in the workplace. Politics are an integral part of our civilization. Thus, it’s the wise person who recognizes and deals with the various political landscapes of his or her life. And very often navigating political situations can resemble a Chess game. To be clear, I am not an expert Chess player, having only tried my hand at it once or twice in my youth; but I am an expert on office politics, having played that game for several decades! And, having watched a few Chess games in my time I do see the similarities between it and the game of politics.

Thus, while we can choose whether or not to play Chess, politics in the workplace are unavoidable; they seemingly are as routine as breathing. And to avoid having the breath knocked out of you, it’s essential to scope out the political landscape when you begin a new job (this approach is also useful when arriving on your new college campus or starting a new high school year). You need to find out who has the power, who is trustworthy and approachable, who is well connected and knows where all the bodies are buried. Decide with whom you want to associate. It’s imperative that you treat everyone with equal kindness, respect and inclusivity; however, knowing who’s who and determining the structure of your network is necessary in order to be successful in your job and career, and to preempt uncooperative behavior, sabotage and bulling.

Whether you’re beginning your first or subsequent internship or permanent position or are a veteran in your current workplace, navigating the politics of your industry, organization and immediate department and managers is something everyone must learn.

To examine how that can be done, let’s go back to the Chess comparison. Just as winning at Chess takes insight, strategy, concentration, patience, courage and vision, so it goes with winning at workplace politics. Using the elements of playing chess as a guide, you can structure an approach to dealing with office politics:


“Space” refers to the Chessboard and control of enough squares to have the flexibility to move your Chess pieces in the best direction at any given moment.

When you are new to a company or in a position, your space on the landscape is small. In terms of your physical space, depending on the particular organization and your position, you might have a smaller work area than those who have more seniority or a higher rank. Certainly your knowledge and experience space will be small. And, the space to which you are entitled, politically, will be small, so cramming the refrigerator full of your lunch and snacks, hogging the microwave or commandeering the conference room for your projects will not endear you, and it will probably weaken your political capital. The smart moves you make early on will determine whether you can effectively expand your space in order to influence, advance and lead.


“Time” means the number of pieces you have in play on the board.

In office politics this compares to the number of friends and allies you have in your corner. From the beginning you should use your leadership skills such as business etiquette, emotional intelligence and professional prowess to win people over to start building your departmental, organizational and industry network.


“Force” signifies how many chess pieces you have, i.e., what is the strength of your bargaining position to make trades.

In workplace politics, this translates to the bargaining and negotiating strength you need to outperform and advance. Thus, your store of knowledge, information and skills become resources that you can use to provide assistance and courtesies to others. Take steps to gather those resources by accepting responsibility and gaining experience and authority in increments. To increase your political capital, trade favors and courtesies generously, kindly and wisely — without always expecting immediate or equal reciprocation.


“Position” indicates the position on the board of the pieces (center is good) and that your space allows you to move your pieces and protect your King, Queen and other valuable pieces.

At work, your position indicates your rank, levels of popularity and influence and store of knowledge and information. Your goal is to achieve a stature that places you in a position of respect and authority. And, by authority I don’t mean hierarchical strength but the respectful authority that is part of your personality and demeanor.  Being authoritative is a very important quality in surviving office politics. Add the likeability factor and your position becomes more powerful.


“Harmony” connotes the balance and relationship of your pieces and pawns as compared to your opponent’s pieces and pawns.

In the office, this would compare to the balance, harmony and relationship of your team or staff members, coworkers and supporters and their loyalty to you. To be able to deal with office, company and industry politics your network of supporters should be in harmony and balance with your ethics, ideals and goals and ready to come to your aid and defense when necessary. That doesn’t mean that everyone must always agree on everything, but it does mean that you must be a loyal, trustworthy, open-minded and understanding partner, coworker, team member or leader/manager.


“Dynamics” refers to the ever-changing positions of the pieces on the Chessboard, and the need for the players to be on top of these changes, anticipate them before they occur and deal with them effectively. This involves developing a strategy in playing the game.

Dynamics in workplace politics is similar. If you have been observing keenly and done your homework on the previous elements, including developing your overall strategy and tactics to address various situations, you likely are emerging as an expert on the dynamics of office politics.

State of Mind

One’s state of mind is paramount to your strategy, playing and ultimately winning at Chess.

This holds true, as well, in workplace politics. Situations can range from addressing local issues such as who is in charge of managing the office coffee pot to policy and legal violations leading to employee claims. Your state of mind when dealing with all situations, petty to profound, will be a key factor in determining a successful outcome. Are you cool, confident, informed, organized and decisive or are you hot-tempered, emotional, defensive, scattered and faltering?

Follow the advice of Chess master Aron Nimzovitch: “Thou shalt not shilly-shally.” And, to gain some insight on what a state of mind can be in Chess, take a look at the historic documentary on the 1986 chess world championship, Chess: A State of Mind.

The Endgame

The “endgame” usually occurs when there are only a few pieces left on the Chess board. When grand masters are playing there is seldom a checkmate because the players are highly skilled to avoid checkmate and possess the ability to see far ahead to the outcome of the game. In such cases, one player usually resigns and ends the game. Throughout the game of Chess there are rules of etiquette and sporting behavior to be observed.

In the workplace, as well, vision and insight are required to calculate the endgame in any political situation. When it occurs, it should be dealt with sportingly and with a show of good manners, integrity, ethics, leadership and courtesy. 

For some instructive and revealing reading on workplace politics I like Secrets to Winning at Office Politics, by Marie G. McIntyre, Ph.D., and Corporate Confidential, by Cynthia Shapiro, a former HR executive.

It is my hope that this information will help to equip you to face your next move on the political game board with confidence, calm and leadership.

Until next time,


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