How To Manage Office Politics, Part 1: 5 Essential Tips To Getting Started

This is a guest post by Cornelius Mota.

How To Manage Office Politics, Part 1: 5 Essential Tips To Getting Started

This is part 1 of a 3-part series on how to tackle office politics and become a master of it.

  1. How To Manage Office Politics, Part 1: 5 Essential Tips To Getting Started
  2. How To Manage Office Politics, Part 2: How To Defend Yourself From Office Backstabbers
  3. How To Manage Office Politics, Part 3: How To Master the Game and Excel in Your Career

Office Politics

When thinking about office politics, you can easily picture into your head a tough battlefield, with people stabbing each other in the back. A display of power and greed, pushing all limits in an attempt to get ahead. But is it really that bad?

Of course it is!

Just kidding! However, office politics is a serious topic and it can make or break your career. Like with everything else in life, you don’t have only black or white, but all the shades of grey in-between, as well. It doesn’t help much to complain about how bad the world is, nor to sugar-coat the tough reality.

I invite you instead to join me in an exploration of practical tips, to tame this beast once and for all!

In this post I cover the basics of workplace politics and in the next one, we will get into strategies to really master the game, while staying true to your values.

Why Should I Care About Office Politics? I Don’t Like Playing Games…

For more than 9 years, I held managerial positions in several Fortune 500 companies, such as Procter & Gamble, Danone and Unilever. Based on my experience, I can safely say that you get into the office politics game from day one. This wasn’t so obvious to me in the beginning. But now that I look back, it’s crystal-clear.

It is less relevant if you engage actively in playing the game. The mere fact that you are part of an organization makes you a player.

Let me share a story with you. Once, when I switched assignments, I got straight into the middle of a crisis. A week before, I had no idea that I would be involved in something like that. You don’t see these events coming.

The company had invested a huge amount of money in that project. The stakes were big, several departments were involved and the political charge was going through the roof. If things went South, the careers of a number of people were to be on the verge of abrupt ending.

As the new guy in the project, I was a perfect candidate for a scapegoat. It didn’t matter much that I wasn’t involved in the project at the time when the problems emerged. Most people were not interested in the project’s results anyway. They were interested in how that project would impact their career. For many, the priority was to come clean out of the crisis, no matter what.

This is just one example when you can be drawn right in the middle of a political battle, out of the blue. Don’t think that it can’t happen to you, as well!

Most of the time though, office politics will impact your career over time. You will likely have the opportunity to put your skills to work, build a strong foundation and do well.

From a workplace politics perspective, doing well is not only about getting ahead, but also about self-defense. You can’t stay neutral for long. The game will force you to play.

Not reacting does not mean that you don’t play. It just means that you have chosen to remain passive, in a game in which others invest massive amounts of energy and time.

My challenge to you is: can you manage office politics in such a way that you get ahead, while staying true to your values?

What Do We Actually Mean By Office Politics?

Before getting into how to approach the beast, I believe it is a good idea to clarify what office politics is.

Office politics is a topic usually covered in an aura of mystery. It’s about the unwritten rules that should be followed in an organization, about developing the right connections, getting the right support and sometimes doing whatever you need to do, in order to be on the winning side.

I view office politics as the universe around the formal structure and way of working in an organization. Some of the key elements include: the “unwritten rules” — organizational culture dos and don’ts, informal relationships, support or sabotage from others, especially from people in high influence/power positions.

Organizations are different. Office politics may mean a totally different thing in a highly political organization, versus one in which political games are discouraged.

Politics also plays a different role for you at different points in your life, depending on the stage of your career. When you’re just starting out, being politically savvy is not crucial. However, make no mistake! This does not mean that you are not a player. It just means that once you start climbing the ladder, you need to become much better at managing workplace politics. Not only if you want to get ahead, but merely to survive.

1. Survive The Initiation

The moment you join an organization, you enter the so-called “initiation phase”. The initiation phase is more about understanding and fitting into the organizational culture. It’s the common-sense stage of your workplace politics orientation.

You need to expect your first 30 days in any organization to be quite challenging in terms of adaptation effort. In order to survive, plan in advance how to cope with stress during this period.

Let’s explore then what are the most effective approaches that enable an effective and quick adaptation.

In the beginning, focus on understanding how things work in your new environment

  • What are the written and most importantly, the unwritten rules?
  • Who are the key formal and informal leaders of the organization?

Get The Obvious Info Quickly

  • The good news is that a lot of the elements you need to grasp very quickly are openly shared.
  • Read the organization’s policies, have a discussion with your HR partner, talk to your peers. You’ll be able to find out the basics in terms of dress code, working hours, time off and so on.

Research Actively The “Show Signs”

The “show signs” are the elements that are not necessarily shared by open communication. You need to pay attention to your surroundings and to what other people do in order to grasp them.

Show signs include for example elements such as:

  • Do your colleagues personalize their space with photos, plants, quotes?
  • How formal or informal are the peers interactions?
  • How about the boss-subordinate interactions?
  • How many meetings take place?
  • Are people working mostly individually or you see small groups of people working together everywhere?

2. Deliver Massive Value-Added To The Organization

Since we reached this point, let me clarify something. I certainly don’t want this post to come across as indicating office politics to be the key strategy to succeed and advance your career.

In order to be successful in any organization, you need to deliver massive value-added.

Making your projects a success is a must. Whatever it is that you do, strive to reach excellence, no matter how hard you need to work and to push yourself.

However, my point is that this is not enough to succeed.

Whether you like it or not, it is a reality that workplace politics play a big role in your success within an organization.

This approach is about doing the best work you possibly can and then go even beyond that. It is about embracing the vision and strategy of your organization so well, that you don’t only over-deliver on your assigned projects, but you go so much further.

Yes, it is a lot of work. But who said success was easy?

Some people maybe expected to find out about a magic technique that can ensure promotion within a month.
However, you and me are approaching the career long-term, right? There are no short-cuts to success.

You may wonder by now what does over-delivering on your projects have to do with office politics?

Being politically savvy should come in the context of delivering massive value-added to the organization. This is because playing political games per se will not get you very far. Build a solid foundation of results first and then add your political mastery on top of that.

The good news is that when you do both, you WILL succeed.

3. Make Your Manager Shine

If you want to rise and shine in an organization, you first need to make your manager shine.

Your manager has a huge impact on your career development. In this context, it’s shocking how many people fail to put themselves into their manager’s shoes.

Try to really understand all the pressures your boss needs to deal with. Whether expressed or not, try to really grasp all his concerns. Anticipate! Go the extra mile in delivering great work and make your boss look good in the process.

Here are a few more specific points to take into account:

  • Align expectations. It may happen that your manager has unrealistic expectations. Or that you don’t understand well what is expected of you. It is crucial to align expectations with your manager. They are the basis against which he will assess how well you do.
  • Adapt to your manager’s style. Everybody is unique in terms of communication and working style. Make an effort to understand and to adapt to your manager’s style of working. Use his preferred communication medium.
  • Take responsibility for building a sound relationship. Both parties involved in a relationship bear the responsibility for how well it does. However, be the one who is pro-active. Make sure you have regular reviews, ask for feedback, keep expectations aligned, clear misunderstandings. This is an on-going process, so keep your efforts up!
  • Push back wisely. There will be for sure times when you consider that what you are asked to do is unreasonable. Before getting all-emotional and start screaming, here is what I suggest to do.

Your manager may not be aware of all the elements which lead you to believe that the request is unreasonable. Also, a lot of times, certain projects need to be done no matter what. In order to qualify your push-back as “wise,” you need to consider the whole picture and make a constructive proposal.

For example, make a list with all the projects you work on and suggest the best prioritization arrangement that also delivers well against your manager’s priorities.

  • Over-deliver! Can you add value to the projects that are high on the radar of your boss? Can you over-deliver on your current projects so much, that your manager gets recognition from her/his boss over the great team performance? Can you identify a business concern of your manager and then proactively propose a solution/project to address it? This does not mean that you need to be a shoe shiner. I don’t advocate playing games, but delivering value-added in a way that also makes your boss shine.

4. Develop Productive Relationships Across The Organization

Be genuinely positive and helpful towards everyone. Try to build sound relationships with people across the organization.

You should especially have on your radar the key influencers in the organization. However, this should be more a natural approach and behavior versus everyone.

I’m not suggesting by any means to accept anything for the sake of avoiding turbulence. I’m also not suggesting to start doing work beyond your job scope, in an effort to win sympathy.

However, be the first one to help. Build a bridge to people from other departments. Identify what are the key concerns of the people you work with and go the extra mile in order to address them. Do this even if there in no immediate gain for you. A genuinely positive and helpful approach will work wonders in time.

Read 8 Habits of Highly Productive People for more on productivity and The Secret To Meaningful Social Relationships (How to Remove Social Anxiety) on how to develop meaningful relationships with people.

5. Demonstrate Integrity

This is a big and controversial topic. While some people get ahead precisely via stretching the the limits of ethics, long term this is a losing game plan. We will get into more considerations on ethics in the next post, in which we explore what it takes to really master politics. But for now, let’s keep things simple.

Always demonstrate integrity:

  • Don’t reveal private information such as compensation level or secrets you overhear by accident,
  • Never denigrate your boss,
  • Don’t make a habit of managing personal matters during working hours,
  • Only accept gifts of reasonable value and in appropriate situations,
  • Take active steps to ensure you keep confidential information away from prying eyes,
  • Stay in-touch and build productive relationships while avoiding gossip,
  • Only make genuine compliments.

In part two of the series, we’ll explore strategies and tactics to defend yourself from the office backstabbers. Read: How To Manage Office Politics, Part 2: How To Defend Yourself From Office Backstabbers.

This is part 1 of a 3-part series on how to tackle office politics and become a master of it.

  1. How To Manage Office Politics, Part 1: 5 Essential Tips To Getting Started
  2. How To Manage Office Politics, Part 2: How To Defend Yourself From Office Backstabbers
  3. How To Manage Office Politics, Part 3: How To Master the Game and Excel in Your Career

(Image: betsyweber)