Dealing with Office Politics

Navigating the Minefield

© iStockphoto/charliebishop

"There's too much wrangling and maneuvering going on – I just hate this office politicking". "Joe, well he's a smart political mover – knows exactly how to get what he wants and how to get on." Whether you hate it, admire it, practice it or avoid it, office politics is a fact of life in any organization. And, like it or not, it's something that you need to understand and master to be sure of your own success.

"Office politics" are the strategies that people play to gain advantage, personally or for a cause they support. The term often has a negative connotation, in that it refers to strategies people use to seek advantage at the expense of others or the greater good. In this context, it often adversely affects the working environment and relationships within it. Good "office politics", on the other hand, help you fairly promote yourself and your cause, and is more often called networking and stakeholder management.

Perhaps due to the negative connotation, many people see office politics as something very much to be avoided. But the truth is, to ensure your own success and that of your projects, you must navigate the minefield of Office Politics. If you deny the 'bad politics' that may be going on around you, and avoid dealing with them, you may needlessly suffer whilst others take unfair advantage. And if you avoid practising 'good politics', you miss the opportunities to properly further your own interests, and those of your team and your cause.

Why work politics are inevitable:

  • Some people have more power than others, either through hierarchy or some other basis of influence.
  • For many people, gaining promotion is important, and this can create competition between individuals, or misalignment between the team's objectives and those of individuals within it.
  • Most people care passionately about decisions at work and this encourages political behavior as they seek to get their way.
  • Decisions at work are impacted by both work-related goals and personal factors, so there is further scope for goal conflict.
  • People and teams within organizations often have to compete for limited resources; this can lead to a kind of "tribal conflict" where teams compete to satisfy their needs and objectives, even when this is against the greater good.

Making Politics Work FOR You

To deal effectively with office politics and use it yourself in a positive way, you must first accept the reality of it. Once you've done this, you then need to develop strategies to deal with the political behavior that is going on around you. The best way to do this is to be a good observer and then use the information you gather to build yourself a strong network to operate in. Here are some tips:

Re-Map the Organization Chart

Office Politics often circumvent the formal organization chart. Sit back and watch for a while and then re-map the organization chart in terms of political power.

  • Who are the real influencers?
  • Who has authority but doesn't exercise it?
  • Who is respected?
  • Who champions or mentors others?
  • Who is "the brains behind the organization"?

Understand the Informal Network

Once you know who's who in the organization, you have a good idea of where the power and influence lay. Now you have to understand the social networks.

  • Who gets along with whom?
  • Are there groups or cliques that have formed?
  • Who is involved in interpersonal conflict?
  • Who has the most trouble getting along with others?
  • What is the basis for the interrelationship? Friendship, respect, manipulation?
  • How does the influence flow between the parties?

Build Relationships

Now that you know how the existing relationships work, you need to build your own social network accordingly.

  • Do not be afraid of politically powerful people in the organization. Get to know them.
  • Ensure you have relationships that cross the formal hierarchy in all directions (peers, bosses, executives).
  • Start to build relationships with those who have the informal power.
  • Build your relationships on trust and respect – avoid empty flattery.
  • Be friendly with everyone but don't align yourself with one group or another.
  • Be a part of multiple networks – this way you can keep your finger on the pulse of the organization.

Tip:

This is really an informal version of Stakeholder Analysis and Stakeholder Management. Click here   to see more on this.

Listen Carefully

When you spend more time listening, you are less likely to say something that will come back to bite you later. Also, people like people who listen to them.

Make the Most of Your Network

As you build your relationships, you need to learn to use them to stay clear of negative politicking, and also to promote yourself and your team positively. It is up to you to communicate your own and your team's abilities and successes to the right people, and you do this through positive political action. Use your network to:

  • Gain access to information.
  • Build visibility of your achievements.
  • Improve difficult relationships.
  • Attract opportunities where you can to shine.
  • Seek out ways to make yourself, your team and your boss look good.

Neutralize Negative Play

Your mapping of the informal spheres of influence in the organization will have helped you to identify those people who use others for their own purposes, and not necessarily for the common good. It's natural to want to distance yourself from these people as much as possible. But what can often be needed is the opposite reaction. The expression, "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer" applies perfectly to office politics.

  • Get to know these people better and be courteous to them, but always be very careful what you say to them.
  • Understand what motivates these people and what their goals are, and so learn how to avoid or counter the impact of their negative politicking.
  • Be aware that these people typically don't think much of their talents (that's why they rely on aggressive politicking to get ahead).

Govern Your Own Behavior

Through observation you'll learn what works in your organization's culture and what doesn't. Watch other people at work and identify successful behaviors that you can model. There are also some general standards to observe that will stop negative politics from spreading.

  • Don't pass on gossip, questionable judgments, spread rumors – when you hear something, take a day to consider how much credibility it has.
  • Rise above interpersonal conflicts – do not get sucked into arguments.
  • Maintain your integrity at all times – always remain professional, and always remember the organization's interests.
  • Be positive – avoid whining and complaining.
  • Be confident and assertive but not aggressive.
  • When voicing objections or criticism, make sure you take an organizational perspective not a personal one.
  • Don't rely on confidentiality – assume things will be disclosed and so decide what you should reveal accordingly.
  • Be a model of integrity to your team, and discourage politics within it.

Key Points

Positive or negative – politics happens. The philosopher Plato said, "One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors." And this hold true today in the workplace: If you don't participate in the political game, you risk not having a say in what happens and allowing people with less experience, skill or knowledge to influence the decisions being made around you.

Office Politics are a fact of life. Wise politicking will help you get what you want in the world of work without compromising others in the process. Learn to use its power positively while diffusing the efforts of those who abuse it.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Click here for more, subscribe to our free newsletter, or become a member for just $1.

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