Are you playing the game, or just getting played?

Office Politics – to Play, or not to Play?

It is easy to take perverse pride in a refusal to “play politics” in the office and/or a determination to not fit in to the corporate culture. The typical corporate culture can be pretty stifling and fitting in can mean denying our own unique perspectives and personalities. But rather than stick your head in the sand and simply opt out (which can either put your career at risk, or diminish your potential growth trajectory) wouldn’t it make more sense to find a way to play the game and stay true to yourself?

The term “office politics” refers to the human dynamics within a business culture characterized by both cooperative and competitive pressures, struggles for recognition and power, tribal alliances and individual goals. Most human relationships involve some kind of back-and-forth play for power, influence and recognition. We negotiate with each other every day for assignments, resources, recognition, accountability, etc. In any business environment where people with conflicting goals have to get along and careers are at stake, politics will thrive.

Even if you sit at your desk minding your own business, thinking that all you need to do is a good job, politics seeps through cubicle walls and saturates your workplace. If you want to foster good working relationships, get things done or get ahead, rather than be an “ostrich” you should actively and consciously engage in office politics.

This doesn’t mean that you have to become another Machivelli and get your hands dirty to succeed. The reason office politics gets such a bad reputation is that those who are most actively playing the game are the corrupt, manipulative, insincere sycophants who vie for praise and promotions. And they often win the game, but that is usually because smart, decent, hard working people like you simply refuse to play. But that doesn’t mean you have to make unethical decisions to play the game effectively. Even the bosses we like and respect probably didn’t get their promotions based solely on job performance. They also leveraged politics — they may just be subtle about it.

Some people take to office politics naturally. You know the ones who are charming and irresistibly likeable and don’t appear to have a manipulative bone in their bodies. They always seem to get people to gladly cooperate on projects. And the very best of them do so without anyone ever feeling manipulated or persuaded, and without ever appearing to be “political.” Because of course once people start to see you as manipulative, it makes the job of influencing them much more difficult.

Darwinian Office Dynamics

Office politics flows through all organizations. Paying attention to it can be just as important as fulfilling the responsibilities written in your job description. In the modern work environment “survival of the fittest” does not necessarily mean the same thing as survival of the most competent.” Within the realm of psychology, organizational politics has become a distinct area of focus because it is so clearly recognized as an unavoidable aspect of all human relationships at work.

If you aren’t on the watch for it or don’t tactfully engage in it, you could jeopardize your career and watch your hard work and loyalty go down the drain. If this sounds like an exaggeration, consider how things work in your own office. People who get promoted are probably heavily involved in office politics. They often voice suggestions for improvements and make themselves known. Those who consider politics beneath them keep to themselves and appear unfriendly or unmotivated, even if they work hard. When budget cuts are necessary, these people might be the first heads on the chopping block.

Worse still, without even knowing, you could be offending your coworkers or stepping on someone else’s toes. When you take over a job, a project or even a nice office that previously belonged to a well-liked coworker, it might foster bitterness and make it harder to work with his allies. Being on the lookout for these issues and addressing them could help you make peace with people you might unintentionally be offending. One could even make the case that you owe it to your company to engage in its politics, because it’s the necessary avenue to getting things done productively.

Do you still think the pervasive presence of politics in the workplace is a corrupt system that rewards smarmy manipulators? It doesn’t have to be that way.

Positive Politics

There are many things you can do which have a “political” aspect to them, but are in fact purely positive activities in the office environment.

  • 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.  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. Political skill proves to be the best overall predictor of job performance, surpassing intelligence and personality traits.

So, you may get better at your job by honing your political skills. The trick is doing it without digressing to nasty tactics. Ethical office politics starts with being diplomatic with coworkers.

Coworkers Cliques, Competitors and Crazies

­Due to generation gaps, different interests, various departments and levels of management, office workers inevitably divide into factions and cliques. Their resemblance to high school cliques has not gone unnoticed, and ingratiating yourself with one can seem as important as it did in high school. However, experts advise against associating with just one group. Instead, it’s best to make friends across the board and to distance oneself from a single group in particular. You can form alliances with a variety of people and groups to advance your goals in the future without alienating others.

Then there are the coworkers who don’t want to partner with you and seem to insist on making you look bad. Maybe they’re not out to get you, but it sure seems that way. Instead of sinking down to their level and risk entering the morally gray area of negative office politics, experts suggest that you confront the person calmly and rationally. And, if this doesn’t work, that’s when having allies around the office helps — they might be able to warn you when a coworker is using underhanded tactics to hurt you behind your back.

It’s tempting to make friends with coworkers by sharing the dirt you know on everyone else, but this isn’t a good habit. Indulging in gossip will probably come back to bite you. It’s considered unethical to perpetuate rumors that could damage someone’s reputation, and the rumor could be traced back to you. Nevertheless, many experts say it doesn’t hurt to listen as long as you don’t chime in or spread it. Knowing what’s going on may help you understand the power structure and influences in your office.

And then on occasion you may be forced to deal with a coworker (or boss) who is just so boorish or incompetent or borderline crazy that no rational approach will help. One reason the television show “The Office” is so popular is that audiences can identify with the odd/strange characters in the workplace. From the irresponsible boss to the totally incompetent coworker, many of us have had these experiences. Unfortunately there are no universal tips or strategies for these people. Instead you first have to make the decision to stay or go. If you decide to stay, remember, you can’t fix crazy – so you just have to find the least annoying way to live with it.

Play the Game to Accelerate Your Career

­It is rarely the case that you can simply brown-nose your way to a promotion. But ensuring that your boss knows your capabilities, appreciates your contributions and is motivated to help you accelerate your career is always a good thing. But leveraging office politics for career advancement requires that you have a thorough and accurate understanding of the complete corporate culture – where the power resides, how decisions are made, the formal mission and motivations of leaders along with the informal values that drive behavior. As a starting point it can;t hurt to adopt a role model you respect and who has attained a powerful position in your company. By studying his or her political skills and imitating his or her effective behavior, you’re more likely to make a difference.

Unless you’re an expert office politician, you won’t get anywhere unless you’ve proven yourself to some degree. To climb the corporate ladder, you usually can’t rely on empty words and promises, but you must be able to impress the higher-ups with a good reputation backed by solid accomplishments. That’s not to say your political skills can’t help you do this. In fact, political skill might be the best tool. This is where the alliances you formed with coworkers really pay off. Landing a big account or succeeding at a large project usually requires help from all sides, and if you’ve done well, you can call your allies into action.

­Unfortunately, it’s possible no one will notice your accomplishments unless you tell them and remind them. So you should occasionally brag, as diplomatically as possible, about your achievements even when you’re not interviewing for an open position. If this seems difficult or even unnatural, try to at least convey how proud you are to have made a difference for the company.