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.
"It leads to what the author calls “assertive play” – not brick-on-skull assertive, but self-confident engagement, where people know they have things to contribute, and stake their claim."- Jonathan Hancock