Navigating Office Politics Without All The Drama
> Office politics is unavoidable
We’ve all been there.
You pull all-nighters, neglect friends and family, forget what it means to take a lunch break and function mostly on caffeine and the pull of the ever-present dangling carrot of a raise or promotion.
You pull out all the stops to make sure this project gets you noticed by all the right people and hope that it makes you the new go-to person on the team.
But then, mere hours before you’re about to present your pride and joy, you get an email from your boss.
“Let’s hold off on the project for now. Richard won’t support it because he has some concerns and wants to discuss with me before we move forward. Will keep you updated.”
This has got to be a joke, right? Surely, they wouldn’t let you pour hours of work into a project, just to have someone else pull the plug?
It’s known that Richard and your boss don’t exactly get along. In fact, most people don’t get along with Richard. He’s an executive level dickhead that only seems to shit on everybody’s work.
If Richard’s opinion matters so much why didn’t your boss confirm things before you spent tons of hours working on it? Why can’t management all agree, make a decision and move forward?
This is some major BS.
And yet, there’s nothing you can do.
Sure, you can ask your boss for more information but you recognize the tone of that email - further information is above your paygrade.
You just know that there’s some offline discussions that are happening behind closed doors.
So, all that’s left to do is quietly seethe at your desk and complain to yourself about all that wasted time you could’ve used for the multitude of other priority tasks.
This is one of many scenarios where something can have a huge effect on our working lives and yet we have absolutely no control over it.
It’s called office politics and it’s inescapable.
Office politics is just like real politics. It’s a result of everyone trying to assert their power and authority, all at the same time, regardless of the agreed hierarchy and policies.
But just like with real politics, we don’t have to become a victim to the system.
By understanding office politics in general, and then understanding the specific informal rules of the game in your company, you can make the system work for you.
And you don’t even have to make false promises or kiss any babies.
Why Don’t We Leave Politics To The Politicians?
Office politics is completely unavoidable.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re working in a quirky startup or a stuffy law firm, there will be the same prevalence of politics - it’ll just look different.
And that’s because politics is unavoidable. Whenever you have more than two people in a space - physical or symbolic - politics will occur.
Think about it.
There’s politics in your family.
There’s politics in your friendship groups.
Hell, sometimes there’s even politics at play between the grandmother and the grocery store clerk who’s deciding whether or not to accept her coupon that expired yesterday!
When it comes to the workplace, psychologist Robert Hogan identified the 3 basic evolutionary needs which drive office politics.
1. The need to get along
Human beings are social animals. We’ve always needed connection with others in order to thrive and we always will. Despite what the tech giants would have us believe, Siri & Alexa can’t replace real human connections.
2. The need to get ahead
With community comes the natural need for a leader. And with a leader, comes the natural desire to be one of the ‘favorites’. And so a hierarchy begins to form, as does the desire to rise higher and higher within it.
3. The need to find meaning
“Purpose” has been coined as one of the reasons people in certain parts of the world live beyond 100. It’s the key to happiness and longevity. With so many of us spending up to a third of our lives in the workplace, it’s natural that this is where we would search for meaning.
So, engaging in office politics is natural - and it can actually help with decision making and efficiency.
There’ll always be a diversity of perspectives, competing interests and limited resources at work.
Without office politics, there wouldn’t be a system with which to make decisions and compromises so we can move forward.
There would just be endless arguments and no solutions.
On an individual basis, learning to navigate office politics is essential to career survival and success.
So much so that studies show that political astuteness is a more important predictor of career success than intelligence or likeability.
But office politics does have a nasty side. It can involve manipulation, abuse of power, brown-nosing and just all around shitty behavior from people who should know better.
It’s no wonder so many of us would rather avoid it.
The thing is, office politics is central to how businesses work. And not getting involved will not help you get ahead.
Also, it’s literally impossible. You may think and say you’re not involved in it - but you’ll be dragged in at some point.
Instead of trying to escape the inevitable - and potentially limiting your chances of progression while you’re at it - learn how to work with the political climate of your office so that you can minimize frustrations and make progress at work.
Office Politics 101
Learning to navigate your office politics isn’t about perfecting shady tricks or tactics. In fact, you don’t even need to look at it as political.
The tips below are simple things that will help you improve your value as an employee and progress in your career. Some of them can even be relevant to your personal life. If you follow the pointers below, you’ll be more confident and diplomatic at the same time.
1. Learn The Real Hierarchy
Every business has an organizational structure.
But usually, that only tells half the story.
Behind every org chart there’s an informal power structure, and to avoid becoming a casualty of office politics, you need to figure it out.
There will be certain people in the business who hold more clout than colleagues who are supposed to be their seniors.
Even within teams, you’ll find that some directors are highly influenced by the opinions of certain managers below them.
These are your company influencers.
They’re the people who are buddy-buddy with the senior management, constantly being praised as the future of the business and probably well-known across the business.
They could also be people like admins and office managers who work closely with the directors.
Conversely, there are also people who have uppity titles like VP of this and Executive Director of that...but they have zero power within the organization.
It’s important to know who these people are and make a mental note.
That way when you have competing instructions or agendas at play, you know who to pay more attention to beyond your immediate boss.
2. Avoid The Resident Gossip
Every workplace has gossip, and it’s not all bad. Good gossip can be a great way to build bonds with your colleagues and can actually help you navigate office politics.
But bad gossip can easily draw you into the eye of an office politics storm - avoid negative gossip.
There are some people within a company who thrive on office gossip.
They are the ones to be avoided.
People like this generally use gossip to further their own personal agenda, so getting involved with them, even as an innocent bystander, can end with your reputation within the company being ruined.
3. Build Your Network
One of the best ways to avoid getting screwed by office politics is to build a positive profile and reputation within the company.
And an excellent way to do that is to build your network with those power players and influencers. This isn’t about kissing ass either.
To progress in any organization, you need to be known beyond just your immediate boss and team.
And, more importantly, you should be known by the right people.
There are 3 different types of networks you need within the workplace.
Operational network - these are the people who will help you get your job done, such as your immediate team or the IT helpdesk guy.
Strategic network - these are the people who will help you stay up to date with the company climate so you can spot opportunities. These will most likely be people outside of your direct team.
Developmental network - these are the people who can help you to develop as a professional, such as mentors and sponsors.
Going back to our influencers mentioned above, make sure you build a relationship with each of them when and where possible. They will likely fit into options 2 and 3 above.
It could be as simple as asking one of them for an opinion on a piece of work that’s vaguely related to their area of responsibility.
Or, it could be introducing yourself to them at a work function or party.
This doesn’t have to be disingenuous. You don’t need to try to make the CEO your new work BFF.
But having your face and name known by the top dogs will help you get ahead. And, it’s just nice to get to know your fellow colleagues, even if only on the surface level.
4. Celebrate Yourself!
The next best way to build your profile within a company is self-promotion.
Did reading that word send a shiver down your spine?
We get it.
Nobody likes to toot their own horn. And the idea of self-promotion at work is enough to make anyone cringe a little. But there are ways of making sure people know how great you are at your job without being a total egomaniac about it.
Celebrate group efforts - if you feel gross about promoting individual work, share some group successes. Especially, if you led the project or team, it will feel less self-promotional and more like celebrating teamwork.
Share a learning experience - instead of just saying “I just landed a huge client, go me!” you could share one of the tactics you used that helped land the client so your colleagues can learn from it.
Create content - instead of just talking about how good you are at your job, create content around it. Write a blog post or make a video discussing an area of your job, post it on LinkedIn and share it internally.
5. Ask The Right Questions
When it comes to avoiding office politics with individual projects and tasks, asking questions is your friend! When your boss or whoever is leading a project briefs you, go into full annoying 3 year old mode.
Some helpful questions include:
Who should be my main point of contact for this?
Are there any sensitive areas that I should speak to you about before making decisions?
Is it okay for me to get this person’s take on things?
Is there anyone else I should speak to / work with on this?
Who is making the final decisions?
Who are the key stakeholders for this?
Is there a specific process in place for this already?
Getting answers to all these questions and more will help you build a clearer picture of the politics surrounding the project, and avoid stepping on any toes.
6. Choose Your Battles Wisely
One of the most important skills for navigating office politics is knowing when to leave it alone and just walk away.
Take the example at the start of the article.
If you don’t know the political landscape, you could end up spending even more time and energy complaining to your boss about the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into the project so far, and the injustice of the plug being pulled at the last minute, without your involvement.
But, if you’re familiar with all the factors at play, you know that you’ll be venting about something your boss has neither the power nor the interest to change.
The both of you can then save your energies for battles that are worth fighting.
Sure, it may feel like a defeat - but it’s not personal, it’s just business. Don’t forget that.
VIDEO: Navigating Office Politics | Leila's House of Corrections
> Office politics are everywhere
> It’s important to figure out the unwritten rules
> Life isn’t fair...and neither is work!
7. What Not To Do
There are, of course, some less positive ways to make office politics work for you.
It’s this kind of behavior that usually turns people off to the idea of “playing the game.” But rest assured, you can be political without doing any of the scummy things below.
When you have knowledge of the power dynamic within your company, you can manipulate people and situations to get the outcome you want.
And yes, this might help you get ahead for a while.
But eventually, it will catch up with you - and you’ll be seen as untrustworthy and selfish. Not an ideal character trait for the leadership of the company.
B) Sucking up
Brown-nosing is so annoying and so obvious!
How many times have you heard someone laugh hysterically at a dad joke told my someone senior to them...and instantly rolled your eyes at their shamelessness?
Well, we can guarantee that the person telling the joke feels the same.
Brown-nosing is not a good way to impress.
At best, you’ll come off fickle and not credible. At worst, you could be taken advantage of and find yourself adding the title of “glorified assistant” to your existing day job.
This is the worst of the worst. Trying to further your own career at the expense of others is an asshole move. Don’t do it.
“Throwing people under the bus” to make yourself look better and to position yourself as a superior contributor to a project can yield you some short-term gains.
But eventually, it will lose you friends and damage your reputation. And the higher you get up the organization, the less likely this kind of behavior will win you any favors.
When Office Politics Stings You
Being a staff-level or middle management casualty of the antics of senior management can be incredibly frustrating.
It can leave us feeling powerless, demotivated and devalued.
What must it say about you, if the powers that be, care so little about your work? Do they even realize the effort you’re putting in?
But, office politics is not personal. It’s just business. Never lose sight of that.
Even after learning how to navigate it, the best of us can still get burnt. Then, we all get really butt-hurt about it.
And in those scenarios, many of us default to either passive-aggressive anger or self-flagellation. But, there are other ways to deal with this - much better ways.
1. Hate The Game, Not The Player
Remember, office politics is unavoidable like the tides and seasons. Everyone is trying to find their way around it, just like you.
And sometimes, they’ll play the game better than you.
That’s just the way it is - pure and simple.
So, next time you get burned by some political crap just remember, it’s really not about you.
It’s the system and if it wasn’t this particular project or issue, eventually it would be something else.
You win some, you lose some.
2. Call on Your Support Network
Even if you know intellectually that office politics isn’t personal, it can still hurt when it affects your work.
Don’t feel like you have to suffer in silence.
Speak to your support network about it. Sharing with colleagues who understand the environment you’re working in can really help.
Ideally, the first go-to person would be your work BFF. And, if you don’t have one, reach out to your inner circle of personal BFFs - one of ‘em can be that helpful sounding board for you.
Just be careful not to fall into negative gossiping.
Simply share the facts, and how the situation has made you feel.
They’ll be able to relate, and talking about it will help relieve some of the stress for you.
3. Reframe, Reframe, Reframe!
Reframing is when you look for the positive outcomes in a seemingly negative situation.
Using the example from the intro, your instant reaction will be to feel that you’ve lost hours of work for nothing.
But the positives are:
You have all of the work ready for if they do decide to carry on with the project in the future.
You can get back to some semblance of work/life balance!
You could use this as an opportunity to get an introduction to the senior person who put the project on hold.
Reframing can be hard when emotions are high.
However, it’s a really useful tool to prevent you from dwelling on the negative by seeking out the positive - no matter how small or insignificant.
Launch Your Campaign
Office politics can be a minefield. It’s constantly changing and it seems like every month there’s a new unspoken rule, hidden agenda or invisible interpersonal conflicts.
But, understanding and working with the system is critical to your success. Both in your current company and your career as a whole.
Politics doesn’t have to be a dirty word.
You can politic to your heart’s content without hurting anyone, being dishonest and scummy or attracting drama.
You can be smart about it and know when and how to navigate the office game. It’ll sharpen your observational awareness and up your interpersonal skills.
And, more importantly, you’ll be able to minimize wasted time and energy on dead ends, and focus your efforts on the right people and the right work.
Work which you’ll now be able to share and promote with confidence, to get the real recognition you deserve.
That promotion is suddenly looking closer already!