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.

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Comments (37)
  • tuhaybey wrote This month
    politics that work
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi ernesttan1976,
    I agree wholeheartedly that we should all act with integrity. Yet at the same time, we can do whatever it takes to make ourselves look as good as we possibly can.

    This does not mean to project a false persona or say that you are someone or have done something that you have not. It is just showing yourself in the best possible light.

    In regards to the toxic people, indeed it can destroy working relationships. Yet, sometimes we cannot avoid them because our job requires us to interact with them. My view is simply to minimize that contact as much as possible.

    How might you go about taking the toxic people out of the equation?

    Midgie
  • ernesttan1976 wrote Over a month ago
    It is morally wrong to try to make yourself look good. Just be a person of integrity.
    Don't take credit for what is not yours to take.

    I agree that poisonous toxic people should be taken out of the equation. It destroys working relationships.
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi agora,
    It's never great when you are negatively affected by colleagues and I agree as Mayc suggested that sometimes you need to spend time 'being nice' and socializing with them rather than avoiding them all together.

    In the past I've been criticized for being almost 'too efficient' in that I was cold and unapproachable. This was simply my way of coping with the heavy workload by keeping focused on the workload and getting as much done as possible. The social chit-chat was unnecessary. I soon learned that the social chit-chat, and taking a few minutes to make pleasant small talk, actually went a long way in gaining cooperation from people.

    I'm not sure it that is the case with you, however, sometimes it does pay off to take the time and make the small talk. In the case with the negative person, I would be tempted to counter with questions about the validity and basis for their negativity. Much like holding up a mirror to what they are saying in hopes that it will help them see more clearly.

    How does all that sound to you? How could you implement that approach?
    Midgie
  • mayc wrote Over a month ago
    Hi agora,
    It is a balancing act for sure - you don't want to spend too much time managing office politics to the detriment of your work but you don't want to pay it too little attention that it snowballs and causes everyone's productivity to plummet.

    An approach I've used is to make short contact every day with the person who is causing problems. I just pop by her desk for a quick chat (5 minute max) just to check in and gauge her mood. Then I know if I need to do more that day or not to manage the situation with her. Yah, it's a pain in the butt but honestly it's kept things from festering and I know right off whether the day is going to go smoothly or if I need to pay more attention to her. Not sure if this would work for you but it's something to consider.

    I feel your pain!

    May
  • agora wrote Over a month ago
    Hello

    I find it particularly difficult to find the time both to achieve a huge workload and meet expectations and spend time meeting everybody and especially the "enemies" to understand what motivates them and so on. We only have a limited amount of time and energy each day... I understand the rationale, though. My dilemma is the following: it makes me feel I should work less (less focused on my tasks) to spend more time with people (and in the meantime the tasks are not done). Moreover, spending time with the "enemies" have some impact on you... one I know is manipulative, complains a lot (victim) but actually is always fine when time comes to meet the boss... and so on. Being with her takes your courage and positivism away... so indeed I try to be courteous and try to undertand motives (quite easy after a while) but then... if she spends her time spreading gossips and telling all sorts of bad things, I do not want to spend time to counteract this, I cannot, otherwise I spend my time doing this... so I bet rather on me achieving my work and let other know... obviously that is where she and I differ, in the amount of things done and their quality, at the end of the month! (although she is good at getting other help her do her job!). And the boss... who may apply indeed "keep your enemies closer".. as a consequence treats her with courtesy and seem to ignore the others, this is hard and I cannot see why it should be this way because it "conforts" or even rewards these people in the way they act, don't you think?
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Welcome arlene - it's great to hear from you!

    Isn't it interesting to hear what goes on in other organizations!? What amazes me is the fact that these office politics issues are representative of what happens everywhere - across countries, cultures, ages, industries, sizes of companies, etc...

    It's nice to have a place to discuss and vent because it can be very stressful when you are caught in the middle. I think there are lessons to be learned by everyone who reads these discussions too - both in what to do when you find yourself in a similar situation and how not to behave so you don't cause unnecessary political backlash yourself.

    How are the office politics where you work? Do you have any more insights for us to learn from or ponder?

    Dianna
  • arleneclintchel wrote Over a month ago
    In this case the direct boss is the person who should set things straight to the two managers. Conflict resolution can never work out if the direct does not do anything to nail down the problem. Its truistic that there is no problem which cannot be solved..Also, the HR manager needs to get involve especially if employee relations is at stake and there must be a decision to be made...

    I just could not even imagine if the direct boss is the person who adds injury to the case whenever he speaks to the two managers individually.... I mean trying to ignite the issue.
  • ladyb wrote Over a month ago
    I've been through a similar situation although I don't think it was quite as far gone as this conflict appears to be. They were still able to get the job done it was just the tension in the office was unbearable. What we did was set out a clear ultimatum. Shape up or ship out quite frankly.

    I think the executive team is shirking its responsibility by not dealing with the issue head on. If it means one of these managers has to leave then that is what has to happen. What is happening right now is the executive's discomfort is taking precedence over the welfare of the workers and the organization. They've got it backward and need to be reminded of their priorities. Maye that's a good place to start. Sit down and have a discussion about the priorities and objectives of the organization. Look at the impacts this conflict has had on organizational performance and put it down on paper. It's hard to sit back and not do anything after you've clearly outlined what is happening in terms of cause and effect.

    There is a clear need for action here and someone needs to take charge and be held accountable. If the executive in charge of these managers isn't capable of dealing with the situation then maybe that's the real performance issue that has to be looked into seriously.

    Brynn (I'm in a particularly harsh mood today, can you tell?)
  • dragonlady wrote Over a month ago
    I gravitated right away upon joining to advice on office politics and workplace bullying; we are currently dealing with a situation where two of our senior managers just cannot get along. It's a situation that has leaked out to their respective teams, and to affect others in the management team, as well as in the office environment as a whole. It's so bad that it's affecting productivity on key projects, because they cannot work together at all, and no one wants them in a meeting or on a project team together. This is very difficult because they each manage a key function in the company that would normally both be consulted or involved in most decisions.

    This situation has reached beyond politics to personality issues, and has degenerated to the point that the two individuals concerned cannot be trusted to sort out differences because the maze of real or imagined grudges and slights is so dense.

    Dismissal is an option we would only consider as a very last resort, and the senior management team doesn't want to arrive at that conclusion yet. These people both report to the same executive, and he's at his wits end. We've tried managed conflict resolution, mediation techniques, sent them both for coaching and management training. I feel like we've reached the point where most senior execs just want to look the other way and live with the consequences of the situation, and I don't want us to give up and just accept things.

    I guess I'm looking for advice on managing the exec team here - how do you keep them engaged in either finding a solution or considering a dismissal decision when (it's a small team of four) they just want it to go away on it's own?
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