Office Politics are Real – 6 Tips to Consider

In working with high level clients in Fortune 50 companies to rapidly growing venture-backed companies, it is truth that ‘office politics’ are no myth. They are painfully real and pervasive. In its worst form, I compare office politics to the mean girls from junior high school…..fed by jealousy, insecurity, and competitiveness. And yes, those mean young adults, typically grow up to be astute, calculating adults. From the kindest viewpoint, office politics is simply a manifestation of people’s differences – in communication style, opinions, conflicts of interest, and overall ‘relationships’. Yet, one thing is for sure – mastering political competence is a necessity. Being aware is step one, yet, developing competency in building interpersonal relationships (aka: mastering the political environment) is imperative. When a person naively approaches their ‘job’ and does not ‘get’ the political realities of their organization – it shows. And right or wrong, it will lead folks to wonder ‘can they actually do the job’, ‘do they get it’, ‘will they have the respect of their constituents’, etc.

Net point: understanding AND learning to navigate office politics is a critical success factor in one’s career. Those that do not garner ‘political know how’ will unquestionably be left behind.

So, what do I mean by ‘political know how’? This ‘EQ skill’ encompasses things like: how to handle it when someone argues or throws you under the bus in meeting; how and who to speak to about different issues; and how to ‘toot your horn’ without looking like you are ‘tooting your horn’. It is not easy – nor is it a stagnate skill. It changes daily, with the specific individuals and climate in which your find yourself. And yes, every company or organization is not created equal from a ‘political perspective’. Some are over the top – almost pathologically – political, others are more ‘passive aggressive’ in their political arena, and still others (the most fruitful organizations) are minimally political, and in fact, office politics are frowned upon in that culture.

So, what are a few tips we can consider to master the art of office politics and ‘change the frame’ of this reality? A few ideas:

  1. We always have choice. As I wrote about in my second book in the series, Is This Seat Taken? We have choice in life and business until we take our last breath. Period. It is much more than a ‘fight or flight’ option. Regardless how awful the situation can be, we have a choice in how we feel and how we actually respond. Trust me, I have been in horrendous political situations, and it can make our lives miserable….if we let it. We have to decide how badly we want what we ‘think’ we want and ‘where’ we want it. Acknowledging the environment in which we find ourselves may not be the ‘best fit’ for our personalities and preferences is NOT a failure….it is the first step in managing our careers. And ultimately, we must define success on our terms – which may or may not be moving up the corporate ladder in that particular environment.
  2. We need to get ‘smart’ on the culture and political environment of our workplace. It becomes an area which we must study, observe, and master – just like we would any other ‘skill’ or competency in our job. To not make this a priority, it is like we are trying to swim the English Channel without knowing the water condition, weather, or other natural challenges. We have to be brave and look the tiger in the eye. Again, it is not a reflection on you if you decide this is not the place for you. Most successful executives I coach have left at least one workplace due to ‘irreconcilable differences’ to move to a culture which was more in alignment with their values.
  3. Learn to meet people where they are….not where you are. This can show up in how your say AND do things….for example if you are working with individuals who are succinct and crisp in their communication style – then certainly don’t ramble on with flowery verbiage. I am a big believer in the MBTI assessment, as I have facilitated and coached many executives on how to learn individual’s styles simply by observing their speech patterns and body language; and then by simple tweaks they align themselves with the leaders and power stakeholders. This simple approach can make a HUGE difference in building relationships with others.
  4. Stop the patterns which are not serving you. For example, many individuals are demure, low profile, and hiding their light under a bushel – so they do not appear ‘arrogant’; yet, in this process they are not allowing their value to be seen. Others are the opposite; they boast and take credit for work that is not their own; and in this process they burn more bridges than they build…..and though it may not show up in the short-term – it WILL in the long-term. If you are unsure about how you are showing up, ask for a feedback process (360 or other) and then pay attention to the feedback you are given. Resist the urge to be defensive. Listen, learn, and make the appropriate changes.
  5. Stay above the fray. In office politics (and life), we get angry with folks. That is life. Yet, we have to learn to hold our tongues and tempers. Let’s face it, we remember when folks have insulted and/or betrayed us. And how many of us have seen this happen, and then with the ‘betrayer’ needs a hand some day in the future….and there is no one there? Yes, karma is real….what goes around comes around – and nowhere is this more evident than in an office setting. So – when we get mad at a co-worker (or our boss)…..breathe, count to ten, and resist the temptation to lash out.
  6. Build a close circle of trusted allies. This is not to the exclusion of others; as the worst thing we can do is to foster a ‘clique’ environment. Yet, it is important to develop relationships – few and deep – that will have our back. How do we do this? First, we need to truly listen and get to know folks. Most of us are hungry to be understood. When we make truly getting to know someone (and seeking to understand that person) a priority when we meet them, it is refreshing and memorable approach. When others feel they are truly understood – they let their guards down, become less defensive, and will naturally become more open to the other person. Then this fosters an open, collaborative relationship from which problems may be solved, and trust is earned.

Bottom line: office politics are a reality. ‘Avoiding it’ is not always possible. Learning to navigate it AND building a posse of supportive people within your organization will give you a great advantage as you move forward. The sooner we learn how to improve our ability to read and navigate the political waters, the better it is for our careers – not to mention our happiness and overall fulfillment.