Winning at Office Politics (without losing your soul)

Sometimes a day in the office feels like being thrown to the wolves. Office politics can leave us bitten, bruised, and severely stressed out. How can we learn to thrive in the workplace without resorting to dirty tricks?

I once worked for a ‘pathologically political organisation’. My Sunday’s were spent dreading the Monday management meeting where at least one of us would be singled out by the CEO and attacked with the ferocity of a Pit Bull Terrier. Those lucky enough to escape that day would be so keen to keep the attention away from them, they’d throw daggers from the sidelines.

What’s more, a newly introduced commission scheme sent some individuals target mad. Out and out sabotage, cheating and downright stealing went on by those desperate to get their names to the top and out of the Monday morning firing line.

Trust levels were zero, team working minimal (unless it suited someone’s own agenda) and much time was dedicated to watching our own backs.

It’s not surprising I ended up stressed-out, anxious and on anti-depressants.  As soon as another opportunity came along, I was out of there.

Thankfully most organisations aren’t as bad. But to say they are free of politics entirely would be naive. Luckily, I’ve discovered, you don’t need to be a psychopath to be a political high-performer.

Workplace politics is inevitable

Office politics are the strategies people use to gain advantage, either personally or for a cause they support. And for any chance of winning we have to accept they are inevitable. Competition for limited resources or promotions; passionate belief in projects or decisions; and conflicting personal and professional goals, can all contribute to workplace politics.

Accepting office politics is inevitable was a big step for me. I used to think I wasn’t political at all. That I’d opted out of politicking and that made me morally superior to those that hadn’t. I now know I was wrong. Humans are political animals and as much as we’d like to believe ‘our work should speak for itself’, that’s just not reality. The important thing to remember though, is that office politics can be a good thing.

Office politics isn’t all bad

The game of office politics doesn’t have to be nasty. I used to think office politics was all dirty tricks – sabotage, back stabbing, outright lies. But office politics has a softer side. ‘Good’ office politics can help you promote your cause and yourself, fairly. They help us achieve results for our businesses and for ourselves.

Understand the politics of your organisation

Whilst the ‘pathologically political’ organisations do exist, most are only mildly, or moderately political. You need to understand where your organisation is, and who holds the power. You can do this by creating your own stakeholder map that lists not only who is powerful based on hierarchy, but who is powerful based on their networks and influence. Understanding who mentors others, or has a powerful sponsor can help you identify the more subtle political dynamics in play.

The political culture is also important. Observe the tactics the most successful individuals in your organization use and identify which ones will work for you too. If the tactics seem too alien to you, it may be worth considering if, like me, you’d be better off somewhere else.

Know how you unconsciously react

Understanding your natural instincts when faced with office politicking is also crucial. We have a natural inclination to either fight, flight, or freeze when faced with difficult situations. This is normal and our brains can’t differentiate between the fear caused by an encounter with a sabre-tooth tiger or the office bully.

Understanding the behaviours we display when in fight, flight, or freeze mode can help us respond rather than react. A colleague once told me that she kept having to go to the bathroom during difficult meetings. It took some time for her to realize she was ‘fleeing’.

Play the game, on your terms

Once you have accepted that you can’t avoid office politics, you can start playing to win. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ and the tactics you use need to be both aligned to the culture of your workplace, and your own personality.

Here are some tactics you can try, that don’t involve abandoning your soul:

  1. Build relationships

Once you have mapped out who’s who in your organisation, identify who you need to get to know. Make sure you have relationships across the organisation and at different levels of the hierarchy. And don’t shy away from the politically powerful people; get to know them. A strong network will give you plenty of opportunities to test and socialise your ideas, as well as promote your/your team’s achievements.

  1. Know yourself and others

Be aware of yourself, your colleagues and your organisation. When you spend more time listening and observing, you are less likely to say or do something that will come back to bite you later.

Being able to accurately perceive the thoughts and feelings of others, and of yourself, will help you make practical decisions about your actions. We often make judgements about people’s intentions quickly. These can be surprisingly accurate. But they can also tell us more about our own bias and insecurities. It’s important to revaluate our initial impressions.

  1. Make people feel good

You’ve heard the saying ‘people will forget what you told them but they’ll never forget how you made them feel’? Making another person feel good about themselves is a great tool in building relationships. The important thing is to make sure your words are genuine. People can smell an insincere arse-licking a mile off.

Listening is also a great way of making other people feel important. It’s rare that we are truly listened to, but when it does happen it makes us feel valued.

  1. Respond rather than react

Learn to govern your own behaviour and model what works well for high-fliers in your organisation. Respond rather than react and be the change you wish to see – remain positive, friendly and don’t get sucked into interpersonal conflicts or gossip. Don’t ever rely on confidentiality either. Assume that anything you say could be disclosed.

  1. Be a go-getter

Know what you want to achieve and set goals. Be assertive, not aggressive, and don’t be afraid of self-promotion. Identify opportunities to promote your achievements, such as during appraisal meetings and on your CV.

  1. Take the higher ground

Build yourself a reputation for achievement through hard work, conscientiousness, and honesty. People can’t argue with results.

  1. Be grateful

The importance of having an ‘attitude of gratitude’ has gained popularity in recent years. We all want to feel that our work is noticed, and appreciated. Make sure you say thank you to those that help you. A card, or at the very least an email, can go a long way.

  1. Be less predictable

And finally, If you think someone might be playing dirty tricks on you, you may have to surprise them by being less predictable. Keep them on their toes and you may just foil their plans.

Over to you

Have you had any bad experiences of office politics? Or perhaps you have suspicions that a colleague is out to sabotage you? Maybe you’ve learnt to embrace politicking? I’d love to hear from you!