Career development: office politics

Office politics can be a complicated game to play. We take a look at the best ways to achieve a win-win situation

You do not have to work in an office to be familiar with office politics – a complex blend of power, ambition and competing egos. As humans, we vie for power and control all the time: at war and in peace, on the political stage, in the playground and at home.

Similarly, no workplace is immune to struggles for power. With their hierarchies, conflicting goals and careers at stake, offices are battlegrounds where people employ cunning strategies to gain personal advantage, often at the expense of others. In this context, ‘bad’ office politics can poison the working environment and relationships within it.

Perhaps because of its negative connotations, many people avoid getting involved in office politics even though it could be crucial to their career success. ‘Organisations are defined more by their culture and politics than by their fixed corporate structures,’ says Liz Taylor, a business psychologist at coaching consultancy Positive Business. ‘Therefore, career success often depends on our ability to navigate the protocols and relationships that shape the workplace.’

‘No one becomes successful in isolation,’ adds Kathy Gale, a psychologist at coaching and mentoring organisation Working Edge. ‘You need friends, allies and contacts. And the friends and contacts you make now may well become very powerful in the years to come.’ 

‘Good’ office politics – more often called networking and stakeholder management – is a fair game and if you do not engage in it, you will miss opportunities to promote yourself and to develop valuable working relationships. But, to be a successful player, you must know the rules.

The real ‘who’s who’

Do you know who wields the power within your organisation? Of course you do. Except the office managing partner or the managing director do not make decisions in isolation – they listen to people who are lower down on the organisational chart (or who are absent from it altogether), people who are the real decision makers and influencers.
Because both a formal and an informal hierarchy exist in any workplace, it is best not to take the organisational chart at face value. ‘Instead, find out what people actually do and what and who they’re responsible for,’ says Taylor. ‘This will help you understand the business and who really is in charge.’

Once you have identified these powerful individuals, what then? Start building relationships that cross the formal and informal hierarchies in all directions – connect with managers, executives, colleagues, and with the managing partner’s assistant who has more influence than you think. The easiest way to do this is by making yourself useful, recommends Gale. ‘Powerful people are often the busiest and most stressed, so being helpful and supportive can go a long way. But be authentic – being overnice and going out of your way to please them can be seen as sycophantic and will reflect badly on you.’ 

As ‘good’ office politics is all about relationships, focus on developing good ‘people’ skills. ‘One of the most under-rated interpersonal skills is listening,’ says Taylor. ‘People love being listened to properly and you’d be surprised at what you can learn by being an attentive audience.’

Conquer the cliques

Also, have a closer look at the social networks in your office. Who gets along with whom? Who doesn’t? Are there groups or cliques that have formed? Are they based on friendship, respect or manipulation?

Join up with those you trust and feel comfortable with, but try not to align yourself with one group only. Employees in a specific department tend to stick together but try not to fall into this trap or your perspective and opportunities will be very limited. Instead, broaden your network and connect with people across various departments, which is a more effective strategy for long-term career success if you intend to stay in your current organisation for some time. ‘People with wider networks are more successful at getting promotions and interesting new projects, and better able to access information and leverage resources,’ says Taylor. 

Promote yourself

As you build and cultivate these various relationships, a step up in the game is to start making yourself more visible, and to promote yourself while avoiding negative play.

‘You can’t stand out in an organisation without sticking your head above the parapet,’ says Taylor. No one but you can communicate your abilities and achievements to the right people, to demonstrate the value you add to the company and to seek further opportunities to learn and grow. It may seem unnatural and awkward to promote yourself, but if you do not seek praise where it is due, you may lose at the game when you really deserve to win.

Fear not – diplomatic bragging is not that difficult. Whenever you receive good feedback – whether from a colleague, a supervisor or a client – pass it on to your manager. Volunteer for new projects – and not just for the high profile ones, but also for those necessary but time-consuming tasks that everybody else avoids. Be an idea generator and try to suggest improvements to working practices. Even if they turn out to be impractical, your manager will take note.

Above all else, remember that you are part of a team. ‘Always say thank you if someone helps you out and make sure you acknowledge the contribution of others rather than steal all the glory,’ says Taylor.  ‘This will win you the respect of your colleagues and mark you out as a team player – it’s much harder to gain advantage as an outsider who is resented by his co-workers.’

Winning strategies

Good players – those who know how to play at ‘good’ office politics – do not gossip and do not get sucked into arguments or inter-personal conflicts. They never whine or complain, they are confident and assertive but never aggressive. When voicing objections or criticism, they take an organisational view, not a personal one. In short, they are always professional.

So treat everyone with respect, be honest, transparent and trustworthy, recommends Gale. ‘Look at your motives and your behaviour. If you’re being secretive or untrustworthy, other people will soon start to behave the same way towards you.’ And remember: you do not have to change who you are in order to play the game. If you are kind and interested in others, you will do fine at office politics.

Finally, irrespective of where you work, you will likely encounter people who abuse their connections and manipulate others for their own purposes, and not necessarily for the common good. Your instinct may tell you to distance yourself from them, but this could leave you isolated. Be smart and get to know them, understand what motivates them, and so learn how to avoid the impact of their actions.

Playing office politics is not about getting your way at all costs to the detriment of others. It is about developing good ‘people’ skills and networks, contributing over and above what is expected of you, being diplomatic and mindful. And engaging in some low-key self-promotion at the same time.

"Career success often depends on our ability to navigate the protocols and relationships that shape the workplace"