The Draw of Office Politics
When you stop to think about the many who have benefitted from playing and winning at the game of office politics, it’s easy to see why people try their hand at it. The chance at scoring a quick win is why it’s ingrained into the culture of many companies.
At the beginning of your career, especially when you’re good at what you do, it will seem like all you need to worry about is your own personal performance to progress. But as responsibilities and expectations of you begin to grow, the results you desire will soon depend on your ability to work with those around you and the alliances you form.
It is in the thick of self-preservation, mounting pressure and challenging times that people lose sight of the bigger picture. Instead of creating a win-win situation that moves everyone forward to a singular goal, a question emerges – should you play the game of politics to give you an edge over others? More importantly, will not engaging in politics cost you the success you know you deserve?
Setting the Right Focus
Not engaging in office politics may often feel like the harder thing to do. Yet nothing worth having is earned by taking unfair shortcuts. In my experience, the climb up the corporate ladder doesn’t need to be paved with toxic politics.
Your goal instead should be to focus on the long game instead of short term gains. Build relationships with your colleagues on the foundation of honesty and transparency. Be open about your values and things that don’t fly with you. It may seem counter-productive to getting along with your team, but it goes a long way in setting expectations. This way, people know where they stand and what is expected of them.
The founder of Unbounce—a startup that values transparency—sums this concept up nicely with a statement he made: "Most important for me in regards to transparency is that it sends a strong message of trust to all our employees, and the company benefits from trust in return and an honest dialogue takes place between all."
By openly stating your intentions, you can avoid letting office politics sprout from setbacks and stress. Left unchecked and without accountability, you will quickly find yourself tempted to use politics as a short-term solution for personal gain. Your personal interest takes front and centre. This environment will only alienate the people around you who are necessary for the career advancement you are looking for.
Finding the balance of win-win scenarios by building a sustainable work environment instead of a toxic one. Start by aligning your work in the company’s, customers’, and team’s interest. Help others, and use your positive influence to advance your team’s goals instead of your own.
Misery Finds Company
Unlike magnets, negative coalitions are formed when negatives attract. Take the Maslow Pyramid of Needs, a five-tier model of human needs, usually depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid. It shows that for humans, the need for connection is the next thing we seek once our basic sustenance and safety requirements are met. It is perfectly natural to seek social acceptance! So if you’re in a highly political environment, you might find it challenging to go against the grain and disengage.
Challenging the Status Quo
Consider the following types of companies:
- Companies that largely follow clear operating standards that apply to all employees
- Companies where expectations are widely understood
- Companies with formal rules that are invoked when it’s convenient for the people in power and with clearly defined groups of influence, where who you know is more important than what you know
- Companies where every single goal is achieved by going around the established system and rules
From my experience, the latter two create highly stressful environments. The lack of transparency in decision-making processes can cause mistrust and uncertainty. It goes without saying that the culture that those organisations breed fall far from their values and vision. Their toxic and egoistic behaviours are counter-productive to the good of their customers and company, which is why it is only a matter of time before they encounter market troubles. If you find yourself in an extremely toxic environment, my advice is to leave and don’t look back.
If politics are there, you will always find yourself affected by it one way or another. Navigate through it by learning how to recognise it and engage with it by always working towards win-win scenarios. Making a change could be as simple as acknowledging that office politics exist, instead of sweeping it under the rug. If you don’t acknowledge it, you won’t be able to manage it effectively. You can’t hide from politics – it’s everywhere, regardless of the type and size of the company.
The good news is that you can turn culture around – especially if you have been part of the problem. Set expectations and make it clear to your team and peers that you don’t or will no longer engage in politics or negativity. Communicate that your focus is on developing win-win alliances and by focusing on what’s right for the customer, team and company.
Keep your eyes open to develop a better understanding of people and processes. In time, you will be able to effectively manage politics up, down and across the organisation.
Be the Change
Your climb to the top will only go so high if you’re leaving a trail of bodies in your wake. Your career isn’t made up of one defining sprint – it is a marathon.
If you’ve ever run one of those, you’ll know how important your mindset is to get to the finish line intact. The easy route may seem like the best option, but focus on what’s good for the customer, team and company. This trinity forms your north star. In the long run, you will look back and be proud of your results.
There is a common misconception that choosing to defy the norm will isolate you from the rest. Yet when you work for the benefit of the team and not your own personal gain, people will be drawn to you. Identify what a win-win situation is and try to connect to your peers on a personal level to understand what they want as well. Human beings are complex creatures with their own set of values, desires and ambitions just like you. Don’t shy away from taking the first step or asking for help – people will eventually reciprocate.
Before joining a new company, try to speak with the people that work there. Either find them in your direct circle of friends or reach out to the relevant person on LinkedIn. During your interview, ask if it is part of the process to meet peers, or if you can connect with people that work in the company. For myself and my team, Meet the Peers sessions (hiring managers don’t attend these) are very important to ensure a culture fit. This is an easy way to suss out very obvious issues in the culture of a company and set the tone of openness and transparency even before you join.
It’s easier said than done, but one way of side-stepping office politics is to stop complaining and spreading negativity about others. If you have feedback, communicate directly with your colleague, and do so respectfully and constructively. When you speak negatively, you’re signalling to others that you’re taking sides and looking for allies. Stay neutral as much as possible. If you find yourself in a conflict situation, choose to ask questions instead of providing opinions.
Listen to your colleagues and observe how they act. In time, you will be able to identify the people who actively engage in politics, and be wary of how you interact with them. You might even unwittingly find yourself in the middle of politics without intending to participate in it. In such cases, you could ask someone you trust for guidance on how to remove yourself from the situation gracefully.
Remember that your reputation lives on beyond your places of work and that in the long run, your results, talent, and professionalism will speak for themselves. Careers are accelerated through the network you develop over time. These are the people you can rely on for advice, support, or to connect you to the right opportunities. Simply having good work ethics and not being a prick who spreads negativity goes a long way.
When in doubt, communicate. Often, misunderstandings are born from lapses in communication. If you have concerns, don’t be afraid to voice them out openly, especially if it is for the good of the customer, the team and the company. Use these as priorities whenever you question whether your intentions are in the right place or if there are signs that people around you are discontented.
Lose a Battle, Win the War
If you think that you’re alone facing the challenges that office politics holds, you’re not. I once found myself in a situation where the promotion process wasn’t very transparent. One year, I wasn’t offered a promotion simply because my boss didn’t particularly like me. I didn’t play the internal politics game, and my profile was also an outlier in the organisation. I was passed over for the promotion in spite of the fact that I was outperforming my peers, delivering outstanding results, and being identified as high potential talent.
One of the main reasons for many people leaving their workplace is their managers. If your boss isn’t transparent in their process and doesn’t follow procedure, you might find it hard to trust that your contributions will be appreciated and evaluated based on merit. The experience left me upset and on the verge of leaving. But I enjoyed the experience that this job was giving me.
During this time, I spoke with a few people to get feedback and a better understanding of the situation. Many recommended that I should just play along, do the boss a few favours, and go with the flow to be part of the inner circle. This obviously did not align with my North Star – to focus on the customer, team and company. I didn’t want to make such compromises.
I decided instead to take a different route – this time by getting clarity and feedback on my actual role. I asked the decision-maker about the processes, areas of improvement, and thus gained better understanding of official process and principles. By doing so, I could hold the person accountable to make future assessments based on the same criteria. I then asked if the person would be open to helping me improve, and requested mentorship from a senior person.
The next step was to build alliances. I made an effort to connect with other people in the organisation to make them aware of the work that I was doing. My work at that time was abroad and therefore not necessarily visible to those at the headquarters. I then asked for written feedback from my customers and shared it with my boss’ manager to build a strong case for myself.
At the end of the day, I managed to avoid the inner circle of politics while staying true to my principles. I was also able to make a strong case for my promotion – a portfolio of happy customers that spoke volumes about my work.
If you’re still wondering whether it’s possible to advance without playing the game of office politics, ask yourself instead what you want out of your career and the legacy you wish to leave behind. Which sounds more appealing to you? Winning a battle or coming home with winning the war?
Steps to Take in 24 Hours
- Be Wary
While you might not want to engage in politics, you might find yourself in the middle of it if you’re not mindful. If you find that a few people are expressing different opinions privately and in smaller groups, be wary of your interactions with them, as they might end up twisting your words.
- Choose Open Communication
While it might be easy to build rapport with your colleague by complaining about someone or something, always choose open communication. If you have an issue with somebody, speak openly with them with the intention of moving forward constructively.
- Find Your North Star
For me, the North Star is the customer, team and company. Define the foundation around which you will build your work ethic. Whenever you find yourself in a tricky situation, make sure your actions are aligning with your North Star.