"BACK stabber" is an expression commonly used to describe an employee who strives to achieve personal gain at the expense and detriment of others.

Such individuals are generally disliked, but like them or loathe them, most people, at some point, have participated in what is termed "political behaviour" at work.

"Politicking" or political behaviour within a work context is the attempt by individual employees to enhance their career prospects by engaging in behaviour that places them in positions of opportunity or in an otherwise favourable light.

One of the characteristics of politicking is that it takes place outside the scope of one's job.

What's OK, what's not

Let's distinguish between "legitimate" and "illegitimate" political behaviour.

Legitimate political behaviour is that which is broadly acceptable although not necessarily ethical.

It includes forming coalitions, bypassing decision-making procedures and generally adopting a positive profile within the organisation.

Illegitimate political behaviour violates the norms of what is acceptable both within the organisation and within society generally.

As well as being considered generally unethical, in its most extreme form, it can also transgress the law.

This type of politicking might include the use of bribery, the spreading of false rumours and lying about previous employment or qualifications.

Political animals

Psychologists have identified specific personality characteristics associated with "political individuals". They tend to exhibit these behaviours:

* High self-monitors: They are conscious of the signals that their behaviour gives out and are aware of how it can be used to their advantage. High self-monitors are able to adapt the image that they present in accordance with the prevailing political climate.

* High degree of control: They have a strong belief in controlling their own destiny as opposed to leaving it to circumstances. These people have an ability to manipulate a situation in a way that the outcomes favour them personally.

* High desire for power and control: Their need for power and control often supersedes their need to be liked. They are better able to cope with being unpopular.

Political animals

* Investment in the organisation: Employees who have spent some time building up their career within an organisation are likely to devote more energy and time to politicking as a way of justifying the time already spent developing a power base within that organisation.

* Scarcity of opportunities outside: A shortage of opportunities outside will also provide a strong incentive for employees to consolidate their position within an organisation through politicking.

* Age: As people grow older, the opportunities of finding employment outside the organisation start to diminish, and this can also be an incentive to start politicking.

* Immobility: If employees' mobility is restricted as a result of their personal circumstances, politicking is often seen as a necessary activity.

Environmental factors

Organisations where politicking is widespread share some common traits:

* Low trust cultures: A lack of trust usually implies lack of confidence. Employees will fall back upon personal strategies as a way of protecting their own interests.

* Role ambiguity: Blurred divisions of authority usually give rise to the need for employees to reduce this ambiguity by developing their own allegiances, power bases and lines of authority by politicking.

* Unclear performance targets: If expectations are unclear, politicking is a way by which employees can create their own performance criteria.

* Downsizing: When there is the threat of job losses, politicking is often adopted as a survival strategy.

* Value chain reconfiguration: During the transitional period of major change in an organisation, politicking may be used as a way of protecting one's own interests within the organisation.

Seeing the world

Further research has shed more light on why some individuals are more naturally inclined to engage in political behaviour than others.

Employees whose worldview is shaped by a series of random, unrelated and often-irrational events and outcomes are likely to apply this type of scenario to their organisations.

In other words, they perceive the organisation as part of a disorderly and unpredictable world where politicking is inevitable and necessary.

Typically, these tend to be younger and less experienced employees with lower incomes and limited responsibilities.

Politicking is their way of bridging the gap between certainty and uncertainty, and often reflects feelings of frustration and powerlessness.

In contrast, more experienced managers tend to have greater faith in decision-making processes which they see as generally rational and equitable.

They are less swayed by the notion of the world or the organisation as a political jungle.

A matter of conscience?

Political astuteness is a necessary skill in any context. Unfortunately, we live in a world where increasingly one individual can benefit at another's expense.

At the end of the day, you have to reconcile your own sense of self-esteem, integrity and dignity with how far down this particular road you are prepared to travel.