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May 18, 2015

Let's Try to Get Along

Rachel Salaman

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karen-dillon (1)They say you can’t choose your family – you just have to try to get along. And we all know the affronts, compromises and negotiations that are part and parcel of normal family life.

The same could be said of office life. While some people do have a say in who becomes a colleague, most of us spend our working hours with people we haven’t chosen to be with. The result: affronts, compromises and negotiations. Or to put it more simply, office politics.

We usually can’t avoid it, but we can get better at it. And that’s what’s behind a new guide to office politics from Harvard Business Review Press. It’s written by Karen Dillon, a former journalist and now a master of navigating the office politics minefield.

“As I thought about it and talked to people, I realized that office politics really is code for getting along with the wide diversity of people that we all have to work with in our careers,” Dillon says in our Expert Interview podcast.

“We’re all fallible. We have favorites that we like to work with. We make mistakes. We put our foot in our mouth sometimes. We unintentionally offend people, or we’re easily offended. There’s just so much in the human dynamic that plays out in every single office. Even if you work alone at home but you have clients that you work with, they have politics that they’ll be dealing with that will somehow affect you,” she reflects.

Dillon prefers to recast the term “office politics” as “having a strategy for dealing with human beings,” and, as she wisely observes, “we all have to have one of those if we want to do good work, get along with our colleagues, and advance in our careers.”

Her guide covers a wide range of challenges, which are neatly divided into four sections. The first deals with political challenges with your boss, such as the boss who holds you back, the control-freak boss, and the disaffected boss.

Next come political challenges with your colleagues, covering the hypercompetitive peer, the clique and the credit stealer, among others.

In the section on political challenges in your organization, we learn how to survive the office outing and how to last through layoffs. And finally, in a skill-building section, we get tips on managing conflict constructively, conducting difficult conversations, and working with people you can’t stand.

It’s a wide range of challenges, but many of them have the same underlying cause.

“The kinds of difficulties that we’ll encounter with other people [often] come from somebody’s insecurity about their own position in the workplace, whether that’s a boss who’s feeling vulnerable and weak, or who wants to shine and you’re not helping by being so fabulous, or a colleague who feels competitive with you,” Dillon explains. “At the core, it’s almost always someone who’s struggling with something about themselves that somehow ends up manifesting itself in how they deal with you.”

In other words, it’s not you, it’s them. Although sometimes it is you, and Dillon also offers tips on how to recognize and avoid self-sabotage.

Her top three tips for handling people challenges at work are: network as much as possible, get comfortable with conflict, and stop worrying about everyone else. She expands on these in this audio clip, from our Expert Interview podcast.

 Listen to the full Expert Interview in the Mind Tools Club ¦ Install Flash Player.

The subtitle to “HBR Guide to Office Politics” is “Rise above rivalry, Avoid power games, Build better relationships.” It offers dozens of really useful tips to help us do exactly that.

What political challenges do you face at work and how do you deal with them? Join in the discussion below!

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4 comments on “Let's Try to Get Along”

  1. Unexpected issues with my boss of 28 years.

    1. As I went to my boss for help with a problem, she informed me that I reminded her of someone she went to high school with - - and she never liked that person. I replied not sure what I could do about that, but I needed her help with an issue.

    2. The following week, in the elevator she thought I was carrying my laptop in my bag; which is against corporate policy. She pulled the bag off my arm pulled out the binder with a paper notepad in it and loudly stated, "Well then what is this?"....then left the elevator as though it never happened.

    I did not go to human resources because it just adds to the problem and have experienced when human resources is involved, the person reporting the concern is let go or has more problems develop.

    1. Hi Beth

      I understand that these experiences must make you feel really uncomfortable. Even more so because you've worked with the person for a very long time.
      Is there perhaps something happening at the company that might be causing her to stress? Some people turn a bit nasty when they experience stress that they don't know how to handle. Maybe there's a big project coming up? Not that it excuses her behaviour towards you, but it may offer some insight in why it's happening.

      Have you thought of ways that you can cope with this situation should it continue?

      Yolandé, Mind Tools Team

  2. Beth, hi,
    I see the 'bag pulling off your arm' almost like an assault! Perhaps that is a bit strong language to use for the situation yet I wonder what is up with this person particularly if you have worked with them for 28 years. What would it be like if you had a private converation with this person and addressed these two points directly? If that was me, I would wonder why the change and what's going on? I would also document the 'incidents'. Good luck.

    1. Hi Beth,
      I do see your boss' behavior as unacceptable in a professional and adult environment. If you do not feel able to speak with someone in HR about it, can you speak to someone else? Either a trusted friend, an employment laywer or even something like Citizens Advice Bureau?

      Like Bree, I do wonder what might be going on with them that they have suddenly had a change of attitude/behaviour. Any ideas about outside influences having an impact?

      Midgie, Mind Tools Team

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