26 May 2022


Literature Review: How do Workplace Politics Affect the Development of Leaders in the Military?

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Academic level: Master’s

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For the last two decades, researchers and academic scholars have shown interest in political behavior within the military. While workplace politics can have both positive and negative results on the military, most authors have focused on the negatives. Courpasson, Dany, and Clegg (2012) define political behavior as behaviors that are against an organization's policies and are therefore considered illegitimate. The political behaviors are often characterized by self-interest, decisions based on favoritism, coalition building, and personal attacks on others. Politics tend to disrupt the peace and harmonious environment of an organization. Moreover, politics reduces organizational efficiency and effectiveness (Jones, 2013). However, workplace politics have a positive effect on the development of leaders in the military that most authors fail to highlight. As such, this literature review will highlight some of the issues surrounding workplace politics in the military and discuss the positive impact of such politics on military leadership development. 

Atinc et al. (2010) note that the military is one of the most sensitive departments in any country. In particular, for countries such as the United States that have their soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world, the military is well organized with a clear hierarchical command structure. Soldiers are expected to follow rules at all times and not to question their superiors (Whelan, 2006) . These soldiers must always stay alert because they are constantly under the threat of enemy attacks (Blair, 2012). A military leader is therefore expected to make timely decisions and to act quickly in case of an impending attack or ambush. The leader cannot be effective at leadership if he is being second-guessed by his juniors or has to deal with workplace politics (Owens, 2015) . Decisiveness in the military can be misinterpreted as a dictatorship. However, it is the leader’s decisiveness and ability to hold a position and stand by it that saves lives during battle. The military leader is expected to dictate control and advocate a particular position without fear. 

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Any workplace – the military included – should encourage freedom of speech (Timothy Frye & Szakonyi, 2014) . However, when this freedom is used to advance political agendas, it can be toxic. Jones (2013) insists that a partisan workplace can have a polarizing effect on employees. Jones attributes workplace politics to an overall decrease in productivity and concentration, and changes in the attitudes of employees. More so, the author mentions that politics can increase stress among employees a nd demotivate them. In a military setting, politics can lower the output of the soldiers and eventually affect the productivity of a whole unit or battalion. If soldiers are not happy with their leadership, they may lose concentration while in battle or make mistakes for their focus may be elsewhere. 

Butler and Tregakia (2015) opine that power corrupts. As such, when individuals are entrusted with power, they can be carried away and have a negative influence on others. In a study conducted by Atinc et al. (2010) respondents were given the power to supervise their teammates. Hal of the participants was also given the power to punish their colleagues in case they did not finish their assigned tasks. The individuals who were given the power to punish their colleagues were more likely to use threats and intimidation on their colleagues than the individuals who were denied the power to punish. As such, when politicking employees are not controlled, they can become bullies and have a negative influence on the other workers’ productivity. 

McMaster (2011) reiterates that the military is supposed to act as a single unit with one center of command at all times. However, when politics is allowed to permeate the military workplace, it can weaken the bond that holds the soldiers together and disrupt unity. Moriarty (2010) notes that socially adept soldiers can misuse their influence to build cliques within the military. When this happens, teams become divided with each clique having its agenda. When this situation is not contained, it can lead to competition for influence among the soldiers (Rodgers, 2016) . Rival troops can claim credit for a task they did not complete just to make other soldiers feel bad. This behavior breeds animosity among the soldiers. The problem may escalate if the commandant takes sides in the political battle of supremacy. 

It is worth reiterating that office politics is inevitable in many workplace settings (Gay, 2014). Therefore, it is upon the military leadership to seek an effective way of dealing with office politics instead of seeking ways to eliminate it which often proves futile (Gill, Lapalme, & Séguin, 2014). The leaders must be able to navigate tricky political situations at al times for the safety of the soldiers and those that they protect. 

A burgeoning body of studies has explored the role that politics plays in leadership development in the military. Gay mentions that a military leader who can successfully navigate the murky waters of workplace politics emerges as a strong and dependable leader (Gay, 2014) . Such a leader gains the respect of the troops and can easily rally his soldiers to victory even in the trickiest and toughest of battles. In this regard, Johnson (2014) advocates for leading by example, setting a clear code of conduct and condemning unwanted behavior as soon as it happens as an antidote to toxic military workplace politics. 

Despite the negatives associated with office politics, there is also a good side of office politics that is rarely explored. Khalid and Ishaq (2015) denote that politically savvy individuals are good at what they do and are respected by their workmates. Therefore while some authors would advocate for nipping the bud in the root in as far as politically savvy individuals are concerned, Khalid and Ishaq are of the contrary view. The authors instead reiterate the organizations should use the politically savvy workers to their advantage. One effective way of doing so is by balancing alliances. 

As noted in Khalid and Ishaq’s study, politics is all about juggling alliances. A military leader is therefore supposed to know how to balance his superior’s requirements with his soldiers’ happiness and productivity. Instead of simply acting as a conduit for communication between his superiors and his troops, the leader should demonstrate that he is part of his team and is also willing to stand by his team whenever things go wrong in battle. Also noteworthy is the fact that politics depends on friendships (González-Ricoy, 2014). It is, therefore, the responsibility of a military leader to network within his team. By doing so, he can address individual complaints before they escalate into a full-blown problem (Timothy Frye & Szakonyi, 2014) . The military lead er should know that he may need help to control his soldiers as much as he is the one in command (Landemore & Ferreras, 2016). Networking with junior soldiers can also neutralize toxic political influences among the soldiers. When the commander is close to his soldiers, he does not need to fight all battles by himself. Instead, he can have his foot soldiers fight for him. In a few words, a military leader must be reachable and sociable as well as developing interest in his soldiers' personal lives. 

A study conducted by Oeij, Dhondt, and Korver (2011) on workplace innovation concluded that employees value sincerity in their relationship with their superiors. What is more, politically savvy soldiers in the military exude genuineness and sincerity. It is for this reason that they are trusted by their colleagues. As such, instead of constantly condemning and constantly criticizing individuals who politic at work, commandants should instead pay attention to their soldiers' feelings and try to understand their grievances. Landemore and Ferraras (2016) insist that military leaders should at times sit back and listen to their soldiers' stories to connect with them and potentially neutralize negative workplace politics. 

Particularly important is the fact that workplace politics can destroy potential leaders or help in the development of future commandants (Whelan, 2006). For instance, if a soldier is always outspoken about mistreatment but is also a performer in battles, he may be considered for a future leadership role due to his concern for the wellbeing of his fellow soldiers. Contrastingly, if the soldier is involved in spreading false rumors for his interests and is constantly questioning decisions made by his commandant, he can be demoted from his position or even expelled to restore sanity among the soldiers and to rid them of negative influence (Tshoaedi, 2012) . Hence, even if the soldier possesses some leadership skills, he may not be allowed to take on a future leadership post. 

As noted in most of the literature, office politics is toxic and it can cause disruptions in an organization if it goes unchecked. The politics can also result in stress among soldiers and a lack of concentration while on the battlefield. However, when a military leader effectively handles office politics while avoiding fallout among the soldiers he gains the respect of his soldiers and enhances unity among troops. Moreover, a politically savvy soldier can be considered for a future leadership position due to the positive influence he or she wields over his colleagues. 


Atinc, G., Darrat, M., Fuller, B., & Parker, B. W. (2010). Perceptions of Organisational Politics: A Meta-Analysis of Theoretical Antecedents. Journal of Managerial Issues, 22 (4), 494-513. 

Blair, D. C. (2012). Military Support for Democracy. Prism, 3 (3), 3-16. 

Butler, P., & Tregaskis, O. (2015). Workplace partnership and legitimacy: a multi-layered analysis of the shop steward experience. Work, Employment & Society, 29 (6), 895-911. 

Courpasson, D., Dany, F., & Clegg, S. (2012). Resisters at Work: Generating Productive Resistance in the Workplace. Organisation Science, 23 (3), 801-819. 

Egan, M., Murthy, V., & Hecimovic, A. (2017). Integrating the Dalai Lama's Virtue Ethical Teachings in the Workplace. The Journal of Corporate Citizenship, 68 , 31-55. 

Gay, G. H. (2014). Strategies for Overcoming Hurdles to Leadership Success. Women of Color Magazine, 13 (2), 14-16. 

Gill, A., Lapalme, M.-È., & Séguin, M. (2014). When Politics Meets Ethics: How Political Skill Helps Ethical Leaders Foster Organizational Citizenship Behaviors. Journal of Managerial Issues, 26 (3), 204-218. 

González-Ricoy, I. (2014). The Republican Case for Workplace Democracy. Social Theory and Practice, 40 (2), 232-254. 

Johnson, C. H. (2014). Reflections on Leadership. Naval War College Review, 67 (1), 135-144. 

Jones, D. A. (2013). The Polarizing Effect of a Partisan Workplace. Political Science and Politics, 46 (1), 67-73. 

Khalid, S., & Ishaq, S. (2015). Job related outcomes in rrelation to perceived organisational politics. Pakistan Economic and Social Review, 53 (1), 133-148. 

Landemore, H., & Ferreras, I. (2016). In Defense of Workplace Democracy: Towards a Justification of the Firm–State Analogy. Political Theory, 44 (1), 53-81. 

McMaster, H. (2011). Moral, Ethical, and Psychological Preparation opf Soldiers and Units for Combat. Naval War College Review, 64 (1), 7-19. 

Moriarty, J. (2010). Participation in the Workplace: Are Employees Special? Journal of Business Ethics, 92 (3), 373-384. 

Oeij, P. R., Dhondt, S., & Korver, T. (2011). Workplace Innovation, Social Innovation, and Social Quality. The International Journal of Social Quality, 1 (2), 31-49. 

Owens, M. T. (2015). Military Officers: Political without Partisanship. Strategic Studies Quarterly, 9 (3), 88-101. 

Rodgers, B. (2016). Three Concepts of Workplace Freedom of Association. Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law, 37 (2), 177-222. 

Timothy Frye, O. J., & Szakonyi, D. (2014). Political Machines at Work: Voter Mobilization and Electoral Subversion in the Workplace. World Politics, 66 (2), 195-228. 

Tshoaedi, M. (2012). Women in the Forefront of Workplace Struggles in South Africa: From Invisibility to Mobilization. Labour, Capital and Society, 45 (2), 58-83. 

Whelan, P. (2006). Generational Change: Implications for the Development of Future Military Leaders. Connections, 5 (2), 160-174. 

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