6 Simple Steps To Help You Conquer Office Politics

by Irene McConnell January 19, 2016
January 19, 2016

Of all the workplace myths out there, “I just want to do a good job and office politics get in the way” is one of the most prevalent – and the most wrong.

There’s also a widely held misconception that those who ‘do’ office politics well are manipulative. That they’re illegitimate leaders who’ve connived their way into the top jobs through ego-soothing and shoulder-rubbing and not much discernible talent, at least where their actual jobs are concerned.

Even the language we use is fraught with negative connotation – ‘playing the game’ being one of the most common phrases thrown around.

The misconceptions are just that, though.

Firstly, office politics are unavoidable. There’s no “I just want to do a good job but…” about it. Harvard Business Review rightly characterizes office politics as Darwinian: a fundamental evolutionary imperative that you have to be able to navigate to survive.

Office politics are a fact of life because you’re working with people, and people can’t help but interact in the context of their own emotional landscape, their own priorities and insecurities.

The phrase ‘office politics’ should denote nothing more than the common sense observation that relationships play a role in any relational environment.

Secondly, if you break the concept down, being good at office politics is about much more than saying the right things to the right people.

It’s about authenticity, transparency and inclusivity. That’s not to say that office politics isn’t a negative force – indeed, it certainly can be – but to say that done well office politics, or relational politics as I prefer, can improve personal, team and company performance.

So how can you deal effectively with office politics, without being seen as that person? The one who plays the game, with every negative connotation that implies?

  1. Assess The Lay Of The Land.

The first thing you should do is assess how office politics work in your company.

Identify the movers and shakers and evaluate the reasons for their success. Create a roadmap, not just in terms of what you have to do, but what you have to be seen to do to get ahead.

It’s not simply about achieving results, but about discovering the nuances of how success is defined within your organization. For one company, it might be staying late and arriving early. In another, it might be delivering exceptional presentations, or coming up with innovative ideas, or championing traditional ones.

Whatever it is, being perceived as successful is rarely as simple as being successful – office politics relies on your ability to understand the difference.

  1. Build Alliances.

Networking is a critical part of office politics, allowing you to create positive PR for yourself internally.

It’s not about schmoozing and being inauthentic, but about establishing genuine common ground with as many people as possible: think in terms of credible visibility.

Nurture relationships at all hierarchical levels, above and below your own. Don’t be insular – instead of grabbing a quick lunch at your desk, pop out with a colleague you could get to know better.

Become a mentor.

Sit in on another department’s meeting so you can get a sense of how they work.

Seek out opportunities for cross-hierarchical and cross-divisional projects – be that the new corporate sustainability program or the company ‘fun-run’.

  1. Tout Your Virtues.

As Bonnie Marcus writes for Forbes, “self-promotion is critical to build relationships of influence in the workplace”.

Being cynical, performance doesn’t matter as much as the people who know about your performance.

I know that’s an oversimplification, but you can’t expect the people who make decisions about your career to do so wisely if they don’t have all the information.

It’s important to overcome the inclination towards self-effacement. I’m certainly not advocating jumping in and taking credit for someone else’s ideas, but take credit where credit is due.

Be proactive about sharing your background, strengths, achievements and impact with other colleagues, and acknowledge the role you’ve played in overarching project success.

Seek out greater visibility, whether that means leading presentations or stepping up to lead a challenging project.

I often work with professionals who are shy about extolling their successes, ‘blowing their own horn’, as the saying goes – but not doing so can hold you back in your career.

Just be sure to accept responsibility, criticism and fault as quickly as you accept praise if you want to avoid resentment and build respect.

  1. Identify And Live Your Personal Brand.

Personal brand is about competitive edge. It’s about differentiation. It’s the ability to identify and articulate your unique value.

These are all fundamental elements of the office politics game, dictating how your peers see you and, in turn, how readily you’ll advance in your career.

A professional personality assessment is a good place to start, as well as seeking out constructive feedback from colleagues.

Discover that ‘kernel of truth’ that makes you who you are. If you’re a mid-level IT manager, what is it that sets you apart from other mid-level IT managers? What is it that you do better than anyone else?

If you want to avoid being seen as political, it’s critical that you live your value statement in an authentic way.

Perhaps that sounds wishy-washy. What I mean is, you need to demonstrate a deep congruence between what you say and what you do – your actions need to reinforce your words at every turn.

You can’t say that you’re an innovator if you don’t innovate, a communicator if you don’t communicate. Seek out ways to live and reinforce your values.

  1. Unlock The Potential Of Others.

One of the negative stereotypes associated with office politics is that those who play are fundamentally self-serving.

That isn’t the case. It’s not about manipulating your way up the tree, but about helping elevate the people around you in order to better achieve corporate goals.

So, share. Share yourself, your ideas, your values, strengths and weaknesses. Share responsibility. Share success. Learn to delegate – give your people the chance to shine. Champion a flat approach to innovation (because a good idea has no concept of hierarchy, after all) and create a team culture in which job title has no bearing on worth, least of all your own.

Doing so will gain you recognition both above and below – for driving real change, and for being an inclusive, supportive leader and mentor.

Doing so is politic, but it’s also the way to create a forward-thinking and high-achieving environment.

Key Point To Remember.

The purpose of playing the office politics game isn’t to ‘trick’ your way up the career ladder. Rather, it’s about ensuring that your real value is duly and appropriately noted.

We’ve all had that one talented colleague whose career trajectory never quite does their ability justice: mastering office politics means laying the foundation for your successes.

You can’t opt out – but you needn’t opt into the negative stereotypes either. Authenticity, visibility and credibility are critical: put yourself out there, build and nurture relationships at all levels, and be true to the values you espouse and you’ll find the rest falls into place.

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