How To Deal With Office Politics

Posted by Jeff Ousborne on November 7, 2011

Aristotle wrote that “man is by nature a political animal.”  For evidence, look no further than the workplace. Glad-handing. Gossip. Competing interests. Yet few people proudly self-identify as an office politician especially at the entry level. “Young people are often idealistic and see politics as pathological,” says Richard Shell, professor of legal studies, business ethics, and management at the Wharton School of Business. “They want to be conscientious objectors to office politics, but doing so will limit their effectiveness and leave them marginalized.”

Neutrality is not an option: Ignore office politics, and you put your career in peril. Here is what the experts have to say about unleashing your inner political animal.

1. Politics? What Politics?
“Young workers think, ‘I’ll keep my head down, my nose to the grindstone, and be impervious to everything around me,’” says Wayne Hochwarter, professor of management at Florida State University and expert on organizational behavior. “But your actual job function in the office is only one component of work. You need to be aware of an entire social environment, or you’ll end up cut off from reality.” Develop your peripheral vision and accept that politics is neither good nor bad. No organization has infinite resources, so inevitably people must jockey for time, money, power, promotions, and recognition. In a word: politics.

2. Press the Flesh
Think you’re going to thrive by hunkering down in your cube with your headphones on? Think again. Presidential hopefuls practice retail politics—informal campaigning spent shaking hands, chatting at diners, and making personal connections—and so should you. “Nudge yourself to get out, socialize, and network,” says Rick Brandon, coauthor of Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success. “Build your visibility.”

Whether it’s a cocktail party or a beer-pong tournament, go. If there’s a group of colleagues traveling to hear a speaker across town, join them. Get other people invested in your career—both inside and outside your office.  “Think of your contacts and political alliances as a bank account,” says Marilyn Puder-York, author of The Office Survival Guide. “Make contributions to it regularly.”

3. Beware of Cling-ons
Remember the first day at your new school? Remember that kid who seemed a little too needy, the kid who wanted to be best friends by recess? Well, that kid grew up and works at the company that just hired you. So be friendly, but cautious. “When you join a new organization, hold back a little,” says Don Asher, author of Who Gets Promoted, Who Doesn’t, and Why: 10 Things You’d Better Do If You Want to Get Ahead. “Often, the first thing that happens is that the person with no friends and no power will seek you out, looking for an ally.” The takeaway: Take a breath and get a sense of who’s who before you commit to a BFF.

4. Cultivate Key Relationships
You know your boss and your immediate colleagues. But how well do you know your boss’s assistant? The IT guy? People in finance? The HR department? “Look beyond titles,” says Marie McIntyre, author of Secrets to Winning at Office Politics. “For example, many mistakenly assume that people in HR have no power. Well, you’d be surprised at how many problems they solve, how many decisions they influence—even on the level of promotions and layoffs.”

Bonus: people in departments such as HR and IT sit on a lot of insider knowledge. When an HR person says, “Don’t tell anyone, but...” listen up. Get to know people in finance: They manage long-term budgets and know where the company is headed.

Developing relationships outside your division will help you avoid potential conflicts on projects too. “If you know people on the manufacturing end, in marketing, in sales, you’ll be able to anticipate their points of view, their needs, and their agendas,” says McIntyre. If you understand these competing interests, you’ll be able to navigate the wider political landscape. Just be careful not to confuse work friends for real friends.

5. Good Office Gossip
Sure, office gossip has a negative connotation. But it’s not always a bad thing. “Gossip is information,” says Asher. “If a colleague you trust warns you before a business trip, ‘Hey, that guy always hits on women when he travels,’ that might be necessary information for you.” Just consider the source. Likewise, you can use gossip for good: If a superior compliments one of your colleagues, tell the colleague. She’ll remember your kindness. Gossip can be a valuable currency—especially if you have a reputation for being perceptive, trustworthy, and discreet.

When you come across a nugget of information that’s genuinely useful to a political ally—a colleague, a networking contact, even a superior—use it to build your alliance: “Normally, I don’t share this kind of stuff, but I thought it might help you.” That said, keep a couple of rules in mind. First, don’t initiate negative gossip or pass it along. Second, be wary of relationships built on too much gossip. “Remember,” says Puder-York. “That person who’s gossiping with  you will probably gossip about you too.”

6. Rise Above Conflict
When disagreements arise, try to identify the work-related issue at the source of conflict. If you can’t find one, let it go. Head games? Needling? Disengage. “I had a younger client who was working with an older colleague who didn’t have a college degree,” says McIntyre. “The older guy was always Googling obscure information and quizzing the younger guy, trying to trap him. The younger guy was going to go to his boss about this.” Bad idea: Generally, do not use your boss as a playground referee to mediate disputes. An exception: If you know someone is going to trash you to your boss, get to your boss first.

The trick is to not return the trash talk, says Brandon. Instead, be the strategic-thinking grown-up, and you can make your nemesis look like an ass. Go to your supervisor and say: “You might be hearing from Tom. We had a disagreement and neither of us was at our best. But if we need to sit down and talk about this, I’m happy to do so.”

7. Guard Against Idea Theft
Yes, colleagues may steal your work—and the credit—so get things time-stamped. That means taking your ideas in their available form and running them by your boss or another person with power before they’re due, before the big meeting, before anyone has an opportunity to pull a heist. Just be careful: It might just be the custom and culture in your company for the head of a team or supervisor to take all the credit for group accomplishments. Try to sidestep the chain of command and you could burn a few bridges.

8. Influence, not Power
Power comes from control over resources, hiring, and firing. Early in your career, you may not have much power. But you can build influence by being knowledgeable, competent, trustworthy, and dependable. That sounds obvious, but you need to think about these qualities strategically: not just as virtues in themselves, but as tools to career advancement. 

Your short-term goal is to make yourself someone whose opinion is valuable. Your long-term goal is to become indispensable. “That means anticipating and knowing what your superiors and colleagues need,” says Shell. “It might be your special technical knowledge. It might be your willingness to work on weekends. It might be project-specific.  But you’ll know when people say, ‘We can’t start the meeting until Jones gets here.’ You want to be Jones.”

9. Phrases that Pay
When you receive criticism, you can gently push back by asking specific questions. If you’re told you need to be more of  a team player or do a better job on your weekly reports, be diplomatic: “Thanks for telling me what I need to work on. Can you be specific about how I can improve?” When you need to give criticism, do it in a tactful way that’s unlikely to trigger personal conflict. Phrases that pay: “I’d be doing you a real disservice if I didn’t bring this up.” “I am concerned about ______ and let me tell  you why.” “I understand what you are saying and how you see  the issue. Let me give you my thoughts.”

10. If You’re a Pawn, Be a Smart One
Backing the wrong candidate—a person, a proposal, a new software platform—can have major consequences. You can often demonstrate your judgment by withholding your opinion, according to Asher. So, two candidates are up for a leadership position, and someone asks you which one you prefer? The correct answer: “I’d  be happy to work under both of these people.”  Honesty is fine—to  a point. Executives and managers may say they want truth-telling  or “healthy conflict,” but in reality, this is politically risky territory for younger employees. So be strategic with your honesty, especially in meetings. “Don’t always put your heart and mind on the table,” says Asher.

11. Please the People Who Matter Most
It’s not enough to get good results: You need to satisfy the people who matter. That may require hard choices, but you have to make them. “When there’s a conflict between the two, choose pleasing your boss over pleasing your colleagues and subordinates, or you will never advance,” says Asher.

Two prime directives: First, never go over your boss’s head without explicit permission. Second, never start a war with your boss. You will lose. Still, keep your first loyalty in the back of your mind: It’s not to your boss, your colleagues, or your company. “Your first loyalty has to be to yourself—your brand, your long-term job continuance,” says Hochwarter, of Florida State. “That includes your profile outside the company where you work in case you need to move on.”

12. Don’t Complain
You may be low on the political power chain, but you don’t have to be a doormat. The key is to turn complaints into questions. For example, if people are offloading their work onto you, find the substantive business issue in your complaint, then frame it as a request to get the backup you need.

“Prioritizing your work is different from complaining about being overworked,” says McIntyre. Don’t whine. That's a sure way to enrage your boss. Do go to her and say, “I can help them handle this other work, but could we sit down and I could show you a list of tasks and we could prioritize them?” When others approach you with extra work, say, “I’m glad to help—let me check with my supervisor about that.”

13. Toot Your Horn
People need to know what you’re doing. “I always hear this complaint: ‘People just don’t know my contributions,’” says McIntyre. “I always ask, ‘Why don’t they?’” Here’s the point: You cannot rely on your accomplishments to speak for themselves. It’s up to you to show people your contributions. But when it comes to self-promotion, think storytelling, not advertisement.

“Weave your accomplishments into brief narratives that communicate passion, energy, and delight,” says Peggy Klaus, the author of Brag!: The Art of Tooting Your Horn Without Blowing It. If your boss’s boss asks how things are going, don’t just chirp, “Fine.” Use the opportunity to mark a specific triumph: “I’ve been trying to get this difficult customer on the phone for the last two days and I finally did it.  He’s really on board with us now and I’m thrilled.”

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