Navigate the Landmines of Office Politics

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"Why can't people just say what they mean and mean what they say?" lamented Jenny, a mid-level manager for one of my client businesses. "If we focused all of this energy on the business we wouldn't have most of the issues that cause the gossip, paranoia and backstabbing." She was reacting to recent comments from a "friend" in the business, confiding that some of her coworkers were worried because she had been coming in late the past week. First of all Jenny was surprised because her cubicle was in an area where no one could see her daily comings and goings. She had been arriving about 30 minutes late ─ and staying 30 minutes longer at the end of the day, but apparently no one noticed THAT ─ because her husband's car was being repaired and he needed her to drop him off at his workplace.

Jenny had just become a manager for this group three months ago. She knew they were a bit frustrated with her because she was more hands-on than their previous manager, who had retired after a long career with the company. What she didn't know was the group had expected that one of them would be promoted to the manager position, so they were surprised when a young woman who had no experience in their business was hired. Jenny was bright, competent, hard working and truly a good manager. But I was hired to provide her with some coaching because the director for her division realized she had a blind spot which could derail her promising career ─ her response to the office politics and other messy human issues related to her job was to express frustration, complain to her own boss, then decide it was time to "clean house" and start to build her own team.

"She's got the potential to be a strong leader for our business," her director had told me. "And we know she has a difficult group to manage. Most of them have been with us more than twenty years and they aren't interested in changing their ways. But their deep knowledge and expertise is critical to our business and you can't simply replace them. It takes a full two year cycle to bring someone in their position fully up to speed, but Jenny doesn't know the business well enough yet to really get that." He went on to walk me through all of her strengths and capabilities, then said, "She also doesn't get the chess game here. If you let one person go and replace them with a trainee, how does that impact all of the others. How motivated will they be to train the new person? And how many of them will start looking for a new job? All of that has to be part of the thought process. And speaking frankly, she was quite charming when we were interviewing her, but every since she started having problems with her team, that warm charm seems to have faded away. If we can't get THAT Jenny back, I don't think she will be here long, either by her choice or ours."

Learn to Love the Game

I suck at golf, and not for lack of trying. I've been coached by great golfers, and I've spent many many hours trying to get good. Or at least good enough to not be embarrassed. A friend took me to an indoor golf coaching clinic where you hit the ball into a video screen while being recorded from two directions in order to analyze your swing. On my third swing the ball hit something hard on the edge of the screen, deflected up to the ceiling and hit a metal pipe then kicked back down to hit me in the forehead. Swear to God. As they were applying a cold washcloth to the growing red lump on my forehead the owner of the golf clinic said "Maybe you should try another sport. But not darts."

So I hate golf. Now, do I hate it because I suck at it, or vice versa? You decide. I happen to love bowling and I'm good enough to not be hit in the head.

Most people profess to hate office or corporate politics. And this is primarily because they suck at it. This is of course a natural reaction. Who wants to play a game where you don't know the rules, can't understand what is happening, and lose every time?

But whether you claim to hate it, avoid it, or actively seek to eliminate it, the human dynamic is a fact of life in every business. And humans are messy, chaotic, fickle creatures. They are also very bright and alert, which just adds more intensity to the intrigue. And lets be honest, you've been playing human politics almost since you were born. When you smiled and giggled to encourage your mother to hold you, feed you, change your diaper. When you cried loudly if the giggling didn't work. When you chose your friends (or enemies) in school, gave loyalty to get loyalty, did favors to receive favors, and the list goes on. When you give a generous tip to the waiter at a local restaurant because you know you'll be returning many times and you want to ensure good service in the future, you are practicing human politics.

The human dynamic in business becomes more complex because there are both competitive and cooperative pressures. Plus these are people with whom you might not normally choose to associate. We select our friends instinctively, and can easily choose to "un-friend" them, but work colleagues are often foisted upon us. In this unnatural tribe of coworkers, the human dynamic allows some to gain advantage personally or for a cause they support, sometimes at the expense of others.

The hard truth is that you must learn to navigate the "minefield" of human dynamics if you want to ensure your own success and that of your projects. If you deny (or merely express frustration at) the 'bad politics' that may be going on around you, and avoid dealing with it, you may needlessly pay the price for your disengagement while others gain advantage. And if you avoid practicing 'good politics', you miss the opportunities to properly further your own interests, and those of your team and your cause.

And as you get better at this particular sport, you'll come to enjoy it. Especially if you start with things like:

  • Helping others more than is expected
  • Going out of your way to help a colleague avoid a "train wreck" on their project or assignment
  • Working harder than others, but sharing the credit broadly
  • Generating new ideas, but giving credit to the "team brainstorming" culture
  • Giving advice designed to truly help another person boost his or her career prospects
  • Making a little extra effort to get to know people on a personal level
  • Being a good listener and a "safe" place where others can express their frustrations without fear of it being shared with others
  • Going out of you way to be consistently cheerful and charming – a "bright spot" in everybody's day at the office

These are all things that a good decent person would do in the workplace, with or without any sort of "political" intent. And there are many things you can do (or perhaps do already) which have a "political" aspect to them, but are in fact purely positive activities in the office environment. Studies reveal that increased political skill of this type leads to better job performance – not just for the "political person" but for others as well. Research shows that this applies both to people in upper-management jobs and to employees in lower-level jobs that don't require much personal interaction.

When you view the entire trajectory of a career, political skill proves to be the best overall predictor of above average achievement. Your tactical job performance, intelligence and personality traits are fundamental to success of course, but these will only get you to the career endpoint at which most other bright competent professional like yourself arrive. Not bad, but not exceptional. It is your political skills (or lack thereof) which will ultimately determine if your career endpoint is extraordinary. To deal effectively with office politics and use it yourself in a positive way, you must first accept the reality of it and make a firm decision to become a master of human dynamics in the workplace. (Doesn't that sound better than being an office politician?)

Making Politics Work FOR You

The best way develop strategies to deal with the political behavior that is going on around you is to first be a good observer and then use the information you gain a deeper awareness of the working network you operate within. This will also help you develop a network of positive alliances and office "friendships." I put "friendships" in quotes because the truth is that none of these people are your friends. Even the ones you go to lunch with. Even the ones you invite to your wedding. Even the ones you sleep with. They are not real friends. If you lost your job tomorrow, how many of them would be having lunch with you a year from now?

The first step in developing greater fluency with office politics is to think through the informal hierarchy within the broad business, as well as within your particular work group. Human influence and power 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 has real influence to make things happen?
  • Who has authority but doesn't exercise it? Why are they passive? (Are they trying to foster leadership in others, or are they afraid of accountability, or is it something else?)
  • Who is respected? Why? (Longevity, innovation, helping others, business results?)
  • Who champions or mentors others? (and who do they choose to champion/mentor?)
  • Who really "gets" the business?
  • Who seems to be really good at navigating the human dynamics within the organization (find people at all levels if possible)

This is an exercise you should work on over time. Unless you have had years of experience observing this particular group, you should think through these questions and then spend time noticing their interactions at meetings, events, work discussions, etc. You can even ask others about their perceptions of particular people, but be sure to do so in a totally benign way – don't telegraph a positive or negative perception of your own. Too often people will tend to mirror the perception you telegraph, or at least soften their own expressed opinion so as not to be in conflict with what they perceive your opinion to be. so ask neutral open-ended questions like:

  • "What is it like to work with Sandra?"
  • "What do people think of Bob?"
  • "Who do people do to when they really need to get something done?"
  • "Who would be a good person for me to talk to, who really could help me understand the business more deeply?"

Of course you have to be thoughtful about how you ask these questions and with whom you are speaking. In the workplace there seems to be a common underlying paranoia that doesn't occur in natural friendships or families. Typically if you ask a family member to "Tell me about uncle Bob," you won't get a paranoid reaction (unless uncle Bob has some dark secrets that no one is supposed to talk about). But in the work world even the simplest questions about other people can generate paranoia. So if someone responds with "Why do you ask?" your reaction should be nonchalant. But you do have to give them a reason. Just saying "no reason, just curious" will make them more paranoid. So give them a benign reason, for example:

  • "Just wondering, trying to get to know people around here."
  • "Just curious, figuring out the organization."

Over time as you gain a better sense of where the power, influence and natural respect of others exists within the organization, you can also start to pay attention tot he social networks:

  • Who gets along with whom (or at least appears to.) and what is the basis? Friendship, respect,common goals, manipulation?
  • Who clearly doesn't associate with whom?
  • Are there obvious groups or cliques?
  • Are there noticeable interpersonal conflicts? Who is clearly involved? Who MIGHT be subtly involved?
  • Who has the most trouble getting along with others?
  • Who is a "loner" and how do others view them? (Some loners are respected, others ostracized)
  • How does the influence flow between the parties?

Again the deep valuable answers to these question will come over time. To truly "crack the code" of an organization requires patient observation and interactions with people in many different situations. Think of Jane Goodall and her observations of Lowland Gorillas. She was patient, observing them in their natural settings for years, being careful to not disrupt their natural patterns and interactions. And over time she gained amazing insight into their social networks and hierarchies.

As you observe and deepen your awareness, you can also begin to build your own social network within the organization. You probably already have a natural network. If you are a new employee you may have aligned with other new employees. If you are an experienced mid-level manager you probably have a natural alignment with your direct reports and others at your level. But as you think about the political landscape within the organization you may want to expand your work/social network.

  • Do not avoid 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.

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.

In my first discussion with Jenny, the mid-level manager with poor (really, non-existent) political skills, she became impatient. Probably somewhat embarrassed because she understood the value of having deeper insight into those around her, but she wasn't used to being coached or mentored. She had always been an exceptional performer in every previous job – hence her rapid career progress – and had always exceeded the expectations of her employers. So this was a new experience for her, having someone identify a "gap" in her performance. And not surprisingly, she wanted to rush the process, close the gap and never have this happen again. It took a fair amount of discussion for her to accept that there was no quick fix, and when it comes to the human dynamics within an organization, there are rarely easy answers.

But to her credit, she began the process described above. She came to a much deeper understanding of the dynamics within the group she was managing and eventually someone outside of the group helped her understand their frustration that none of them had even been considered for the management position. Right or wrong, it was as if the entire group had been dismissed, and they naturally took this as an affront. And even though Jenny was not part of that process, she was the focus of the group's frustration. Being aware of this didn't solve the problem, but it was a big step forward.

For Jenny her next step was to neutralize the negative dynamics that were occurring and begin the process of creating a more positive and productive relationship with her group of employees.

It takes a confident and mature person to smile and engage positively with someone you know has been backstabbing you. It takes an exceptionally gifted person to deal productively with a group of backstabbers. But I told Jenny that I truly thought she was up to the difficult task at hand. One of her early realizations was that her choice to work in a cubicle that was distant from her work group was an error. It created both a physical separation and a social distance, and she acknowledged that perhaps her own discomfort with the group drove her decision. "I guess I could tell from the beginning that they weren't thrilled with me," she said. "So when the facilities manager gave me options, I selected a cubicle away from them, sort of to isolate me from the negative environment. But I realize now that my job is to change that environment, not run away from it."

Neutralize the Negative Players

Some negative people can be turned. Generally speaking you can positively influence those who are difficult because they see you as a threat, misunderstand your motivations, or feel slighted by you in some way. When you engage positively with these individuals, ask good questions and actively listen to them, they will often begin to turn. If you truly engage in an effort to mend fences and genuinely want to help them with their priorities, these people can eventually become allies. Sometimes they become your strongest allies. Others however can never be turned. And it is difficult to discern the difference.

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.

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.

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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