Mastering Office Politics
I’ve always hated office politics. It was hard for me. It felt slimy and selfish. And that was confirmed when a colleague told me, “C’mon May, it’s just a game you have to play.”
Well, I didn’t want to “play games” to get ahead and resisted it with every fiber of my body. I was going to do things “straight up” and in an above board way.
I remember calling home after my first couple of years at work (it took a while before I even noticed that politics existed, that’s how far behind I was!). My father answered the phone, and the conversation went like this.
“Dad, I hate the office politics. I’m no good at it. I wish I had gone into academia like you where it’s about your ideas and knowledge, not how good you are at navigating the politics.”
I hear my Dad chuckling on the other end of the phone line as he says, “May, there are more politics in academia than there are in business. What you’re facing is nothing compared to that, so you’re in the right place.”
What do we mean by “politics” and why do we hate it?
As he went on to explain that politics is just about interpersonal relationships, my mother got on the line too and added, “Don’t worry May. Politics is just what happens whenever there are two or more people. It’s just normal.”
That definition of politics from my parents has stayed with me to this day: politics is about human relationships and it occurs naturally whenever there are two or more people involved.
It’s not some malicious cloud that hangs over some organizations and not others. It’s not a game to be played and won or lost. It’s present whenever there are other people involved, whether in the office, at the highest levels of government, or on the school playground.
And we hate office politics because human interactions and relationships tend to get messy. It’s hard to control other people (and ourselves!), hard to read the situation when we’re in it, and office politics can stop us from getting what we want.
It can also seem like a waste of time because the politics is what makes the shortest distance between you and your destination not necessarily the best way to get there if you want to arrive safe and sound. The hassle factor of thinking it all through and then implementing is what makes it seem like such a drag. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Why it’s important
Like the saying, “a stitch in time saves nine”, taking the time upfront to think through the politics of the situation vastly improves your chances of creating successful outcomes for yourself and everyone else involved.
In fact, I’ve found that it saves time in the long run because you’ll be more effective in accomplishing your goals, and you’ll have less “mopping up” to do after the fact thanks to being more skilled at navigating around the politics in the first place.
Being at least aware of and proficient at navigating the politics of your organization is a crucial skill to have if you want to get ahead in your career and do more good in the world.
Not learning to navigate the politics – or rather the environment you’re operating in – is like not looking both ways before you cross the street. You – or your ideas and initiatives – could get seriously hurt or even killed. If your goal is to reach an objective that’s the equivalent of being “on the other side of the street”, then it’s in your interest to get good at navigating the politics. And to stop thinking of it as “public enemy number one”.
Being able to navigate the politics of your organization, indeed any situation, is a superpower that will help propel your career forward. Ignoring this skill will hold you back, and reduce your ability to help others around you, whether they’re team members, clients, or family and friends.
Learning to navigate the politics is important because it helps you:
- Get ahead in your career
- Get your projects and initiatives green lighted
- Get your team promoted
- Make fewer unnecessary mistakes that can derail you
- Save time in the long run
- Make life easier and more fun
The good news is you can learn to be good at it.
You can master office politics
If even I could do this starting from square one, which is not realizing politics even existed, then you can too. So stop worrying, and keep going. You can do this.
In fact, like anything else you master, once you get the hang of it and practice it many, many times, it can become second nature to you. You will even start enjoying it because it is the way that clears the path for your ideas and proposals to blossom, and it’s what will help you leap ahead in your career.
To make you feel even better about mastering this, I’ll bet you already have some experience and expertise to fall back on. Think back to your childhood or even your current family situation. Didn’t you know which parent or family member was easier on a particular issue than another? Or how to get your best friends to agree to something? Or how to either wind up your siblings or get them onside?
Well, it’s the same set of skills that most of us had as children, only the stakes are a little higher.
Basic building blocks
To get good at navigating the politics wherever you are requires just a handful of basic skills. I’ll bet you have all of them to some degree. And if you don’t, you can certainly develop them.
Basic ingredients that are helpful
- Being observant. Noticing what’s going on in the human interactions around you, and being able to read peoples’ expressions and reactions to the situation.
- Being able to think and analyze. This means taking the data or information from you observations and being able to think critically about it so you can make sense of the situation and see the cleanest way forward.
- Being able to self-manage. When you’re in the midst of navigating the politics, this means not taking things personally, and not letting others upset you.
- Being end results oriented. Taking a pragmatic view of what needs to be done in order to achieve the end goal and not getting too hung up about how things “should” be and whether life is fair and equitable.
- Having positive intent. This is about using your powers of navigating the politics for good and not evil, and therefore an energizing skill to have. When you come into it with a positive intent, you are using your abilities to get good things done, not to put someone else down or get away with something.
Things that are harmful to navigating the politics
Just as there are helpful ingredients to have, there are also things that are harmful to your success.
- Being judgmental. Being judgmental means measuring others against your yardstick and criticizing them for falling short. But not everyone has the same worldview, and taking a judgmental stance hurts your effectiveness.
- Being isolated. It’s hard to be good at navigating the politics when you act completely on your own. It takes having a network of support and relationships to be successful.
- Taking things personally. This clouds your judgment and harms your ability to react effectively in the moment.
A career “superpower”
So remember that politics is what happens whenever there are two or more people involved. It’s about human interactions and relationships, and managing them well. It’s a key skill necessary for career success, and it’s a skill you can develop.
Mastering the politics is not about playing a game, which implies a zero-sum competition where there are winners and losers. Instead, think of it as a career “superpower”.
At a minimum, it’s about no longer being clueless and stepping into minefields without realizing, and then not knowing how to get out of the mess. Ideally, it’s about maximizing your chances of creating successful outcomes for everyone involved.
Your goal in navigating the politics is to be effective. To be effective, you need to tap into what’s going on behind the scenes. The motivations, desires, and fears of others with the goal of understanding the people involved and their relationships with each other. This will help you find a way to get to yes, or at least to neutral.
By consistently applying the principles in the Building Blocks, you can help yourself get to the next level of your career faster and more easily.
What will you do?
So, how will you go about developing this career superpower? Which of the building blocks do you need to improve on or address in order to give yourself the best chance of successfully navigating the politics of your organization?
Leave a comment and let me know what you think.
Hello May – I have been following your advice for some time now. Thank you for all the great insights; I always look forward to reading your posts. This post on politics as interpersonal relationships really struck me. I particularly appreciated the three harmful ways to proceed (being judgmental, being isolated, and my favorite, taking things personally).
I work with someone who is … shall we say… difficult. This person is going to object to anything the group agrees to regardless of what it is or if it is in his best interest. In reading this post, I realized that it isn’t something personal to me, he is difficult for everyone. This also made me wonder what he thinks he is gaining from objecting and what his intent is. I am going to take your advice of being observant to ask questions and see if I can better understand where he is coming from. It may be that he wants to make the department miserable, but I doubt that is really the case. It is also possible behind his objections there is something important he is trying to share.
Thanks for giving me a better (more positive) perspective to help work through this situation.
Office politics can be hard for some people, especially for new people in the office. It’s important they read up and try navigate their way through it to ensure they have a comfortable office life.
Really good advice on navigating politics at work. Having a positive attitude and a good intent make lots of things easier. Also not taking it personally and focus on the goal are what make us get through politics without taking on the harmful actions.
Glad you found this useful, Jen. Thanks for sharing these points!