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?
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.
Find 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.
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.
Consider the following types of companies:
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 exists, 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 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.
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Chief Transformation & Digital Officer