10 MIN READ
7 Ways to Use Office Politics Positively
Getting What You Want Without "Playing Dirty"
What do you think of when you hear the words "office politics"? Is it all about "backstabbing," spreading malicious rumors, and "sucking up" to the right people? If so, you'll likely want to stay as far away from it as you can!
But, like it or loathe it, office politics are a fact of life in any organization. And it is possible to promote yourself and your cause without compromising your values or those of your organization.
Practicing "good" politics enables you to further your and your team's interests fairly and appropriately. And, being alert to the "bad" politics around you helps to avoid needless suffering while others take advantage.
In this article, we examine why workplace politics exist, and look at seven ways to "win" at office politics without sinking to the lowest standards of behavior.
How Political Is Your Workplace?
All workplaces are political to some extent, simply because people bring their personal emotions, needs, ambitions, and insecurities into their professional lives.
We all want to be successful, but we don't always agree with one another about what this means or how we should achieve it. Office politics arise when these differences of personality and opinion become difficult to manage.
And we often care deeply about the decisions that we make, or that others make about us, so we seek to influence people's choices. We can be straightforward or underhand about this.
Also, remember that some people will always have more power than others, either through hierarchy or some other source – you can explore this with our article, French and Raven's Five Forms of Power. It's natural to want to use, or increase, our power, but we might do so in a way that takes power away from others.
Finally, organizations have limited resources. This can lead to teams competing to satisfy their own needs and goals, even when this may go against the "greater good."
Seven Survival Tips for Office Politics
The foundation for making politics work for you in a positive way is to accept it as a reality. It may change over time, as people come and go in your organization, but, chances are, it will never disappear entirely.
Then, you need to develop strategies to recognize and understand political behavior and to build a strong and supportive network.
These seven tips can help you to do this:
1. Analyze the Organization Chart
Office politics often circumvent the formal organizational structure. So, sit back and observe for a while, and then map the political power and influence in your organization, rather than people's rank or job title.
To do this, ask yourself questions like, "Who are the real influencers?," "Who has authority but tends not to exercise it?," "Who is respected?," "Who champions or mentors others?," and "Who is the brains behind the business?"
2. Understand the Informal Network
Once you know where the power and influence lie, it's time to examine people's interactions and relationships to understand the informal or social networks.
Watch closely (but discreetly and respectfully) to find out who gets along with who, and who finds it more difficult to interact with others. Look for in-groups, out-groups or cliques. Notice whether connections are based on friendship, respect, romance, or something else.
Finally, try to decipher how influence flows between the parties, and whether there are any interpersonal conflicts, or examples of bullying.
If you believe that you or someone else in your organization is being bullied, take a look at our articles Dealing With Bullying and Dealing With Bullying on Your Team. Both articles list the types of bulling behaviors to look out for, as well as tips on how to confront and prevent bullying in the workplace.
3. Build Connections
Now that you know how existing relationships work, you can start to build your own social network.
Look beyond your immediate team, and cross the formal hierarchy in all directions – co-workers, managers and executives. Don't be afraid of politically powerful people. Instead, get to know them, and build high-quality connections that avoid empty flattery.
Be friendly with everyone, but avoid aligning yourself too closely with one group or another. And, if you're considering a personal relationship at work, be certain to base it on consent, to avoid any suggestion of illegal or inappropriate influence, and to never break confidentiality.
4. Develop Your "People Skills"
As we've seen, politics are all about people, so strong Interpersonal Skills will stand you in good stead when it comes to building and maintaining your network.
Reflect on your emotions, what prompts them, and how you handle them. If you can learn to self-regulate, you'll be able to think before you act. This kind of emotional intelligence helps you to pick up on other people's emotions, too, and to understand what kind of approach they like or dislike.
Learn to listen carefully, too. When you invest time in listening, you'll slow down, focus, and learn. And, people like people who listen to them!
Take our quiz to assess your own level of emotional intelligence.
5. Make the Most of Your Network
When you communicate your achievements to your connections, they might open up opportunities to "shine" for you, your team, and your boss. They can also act as a "bridge" between you and other colleagues.
Exercise caution when you leverage your network in this way – you don't want to get a reputation as a "pest!" Always keep your organization's goals in mind, and don't "badmouth" others, or you'll make more enemies than friends. Instead, become known for using "positive political action."
It's also crucial to be accountable for your actions. This demonstrates your honesty and integrity. So ask for feedback from others who may have a different perspective on your work. This is a good way to find out what's most important to the people in your network, and it shows that you value their opinions.
6. Be Brave – but Not Naive
Your first instinct may be to keep your distance from people who practice "bad" politics. In fact, the opposite can be more effective. The expression, "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer," often applies to office politics.
So, get to know the gossips and manipulators better. Be courteous but guarded, as they may repeat what you say with a negative "spin." Try to understand their goals, so that you can avoid or counter the impact of their negative politicking. And be aware that some people behave badly because they feel insecure – this is a form of self-sabotage.
However, protect yourself as much as possible from anyone you suspect of Machiavellianism or another of the Dark Triad of characteristics. Such people are very likely clever and dangerous.
7. Neutralize Negative Politics
You can help to make a workplace become more positive by not "fuelling the fire" and joining in negative politics.
For example, avoid passing on rumors without taking time to carefully consider their source, credibility and impact. And don't rely on confidentiality. It's safer to assume that whatever you say will be repeated, so choose carefully what "secrets" you reveal.
Remain professional at all times, and don't take sides, or get sucked into arguments or recriminations. When a conflict arises, remember that there doesn't have to be a winner and a loser. It's often possible to find a solution that satisfies everyone.
If you're voicing concerns or criticism of your own, be confident and assertive but not aggressive. And make sure that you take an organizational perspective, and not simply a selfish one.
If you're working in a particularly "toxic" atmosphere, read our article, Working in a Highly Political Organization. This draws on Professor Kathleen Kelley Reardon's classification of four types of political organization, and offers more tips for surviving them.
Office politics are a reality that we all have to face, and avoiding them altogether risks not having a say in what happens. It also allows people with less experience, skill or knowledge than you to influence decisions that affect you and your team.
"Good" politics can help you to get what you want without harming others in the process. To harness its power:
- Analyze the organization chart.
- Understand the informal network.
- Build relationships.
- Make the most of your network.
- Develop your "people skills."
- Be brave – but not naive.
- Neutralize negative politics.
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