Navigating Office Politics – Making Lemonades out of Lemons
What is your initial reaction when you hear ‘office politics’? If you are like me, you’ll probably scrunch up your nose in distaste. What immediately comes to mind on hearing the term ‘office politics’ is backstabbing, gossiping, spreading malicious rumours, schmoozing with the powers that be, portraying a façade in order to make the ‘right’ impression and generally sucking up to the right people to get ahead.
Most people’s initial reaction is to stay far, far away from office politics and just bury their head in their work, believing that their hard work would eventually pay off. Excellent work ethics are great, but you need to pay attention to what is going on in your workplace to avoid sabotaging your own career.
Office politics is present in all workplaces – big or small. If you are seeking career growth, its important to be politically savvy. Thankfully, becoming politically savvy is an acquired skill, one that you can develop over time. You can develop this skill without compromising your integrity. To do this, you need to pay attention. Understand that your work alone will not get you promoted. Be aware of what’s going on in your company. Here are a few things to bear in mind as you navigate the maze of office politics:
i. Power & Influence: Who has the power and influence over your career? Spend time analysing the organisation’s chart. Sit back, observe and then draw a map of political power and influence in your organization (not necessarily by job rank or title). Figure out who the real influencers are? Who is the brains behind the business? Create visibility with the influencers and build a strategic network of allies who can advocate for you in your absence.
ii. Identify the Rules: What are the written and unwritten rules of the Company? Pay particular attention to the unwritten rules i.e. the socially acceptable norms in your workplace. A good example of an unwritten rule is where the employee handbook provides for a 40-hour work week. On your first day at work, you arrive at 9am to find out that everyone else in your department have been there working since 7:30am. What happened? There is an unwritten rule that you need to arrive work 90 minutes before the boss and stay an hour after the boss leaves. Note that this rule is not written any where in the employee handbook, but what happens where you fail to comply? Will you get promoted? Very likely not.
iii. Develop strong interpersonal skills: You need to develop a keen sense of perception and excellent emotional intelligence in order to decipher people’s emotions and understand the best approach to deal with them. Consciously choose your reaction to every situation. Your basic instincts when faced with uncomfortable office politics is to fight or take flight. However, it is important to understand that these aren’t the only options available to you. It is necessary for you to take a step back to reassess the situation before reacting. Learn to actively listen to others. Slow down, focus and learn more about the people around you.
iv. Don’t be naïve: Be purposefully in all your interactions. Avoid fuelling the fire and joining negative politics. Maintain your professionalism at all times. Avoid passing on rumours without taking the time to carefully consider their source, credibility and impact. Don’t rely on confidentiality. It is safer to assume that whatever you say will be repeated, so choose carefully what “secrets” you reveal. Don’t take sides and avoid getting sucked into arguments. Where conflicts arises, work on finding a solution that is possible to find a solution that satisfies everyone.
v. Study the company culture: what is the prevalent culture at the company? Female-friendly? Gender-biases? Does the company’s values align with your values? Will you be given the opportunity to showcase your talent in this environment?
Office politics does not necessarily have to be a bad thing. Practicing “good” office politics can help you promote you and your team’s interests fairly and appropriately. Being sensitive enough to identify “bad” politics will also help you avoid some tricky situations in the workplace.
Sources: Forbes Women article by Bonnie Marcus – “What I learned about office politics that changed my career”; “Great Leaders Embrace Office Politics” by Michael Chang Wenderoth, April 11, 2016 Harvard Business Review