Here are some ideas on how to play the game!
Whether playing in a Washington DC restaurant, or in the break room of your office, when you look at politics, it almost never looks pretty. While in DC the behavioral standards for how to play the political game have been eroded to the place where name calling, creating “fake news” and embarrassingly child like grasps for power are commonplace, in most office environments political behaviors look more like gossip, brown nosing, compromising confidences and taking “sides.” In both scenarios, politics comes down to a competition for influence or power – to have some control over what happens next.
According to an article published in HR Magazine, “In It to Win It”, office politics are a reality impacting everyone. The certainty that all offices have their own “dynamics of power” can’t be denied and shouldn’t be avoided. She advises HR professionals to get in the game of office politics with the goal to win – to positively impact you and your career, and whenever possible the performance of the team. We think her advice applies to all employees.
But this advice is easier said than done. You’ve probably seen the many different ways employees play politics at work, each with different outcomes.
You’ve likely seen someone who gets involved in office politics because they actually enjoy the excitement and drama of it all. They’ve learned how to stir the pot, in some cases creating the perception of conflict, when there isn’t any. These are the employees who have never learned how to play the political game constructively and are often the most disruptive players in the process. In the big picture, they almost always lose, as team members figure out that their motives are personal.
And there are others who get involved in office politics only when the topic in play is a topic they care about. They are not shy about wanting a certain outcome, and aren’t afraid to advocate for their point of view. They make their case to their co workers and their boss. These are people who don’t play the political game often, and therefore haven’t put together a “power base” to win. They are, however, influential because others trust the authenticity of their motives. Their views are consistent, presented directly and publically.
You’ve also most likely experienced a co-worker who tends to get in the middle of office politics because of their need to be liked – and liked by everyone. These are employees who swing back and forth between the different “sides”, changing their point of view depending on who they are talking to. These are the employees who lose the game of politics because no one knows what they stand for, really. Not an employee you can count on when the going gets tough!
The author, Tamara Lytle, claims that any time two colleagues bump heads or two ideas are being floated to address a problem, it is human nature to take a side rather than look for the middle of the road. We’ve seen that tendency played out ourselves – once a side has been taken, we tend to listen to and believe only those “others” who are on our side. Not a good trait when the goal is to use facts and objective problem solving to make decisions.
In her article, Tamara offered several tips for getting into office politics the right way and for the right reasons. While her ideas were presented specifically for HR Professionals, we thought there were several that could be of value to all employees.
- Embrace the dynamics of office politics and make them work for you. Tamara suggests a proactive approach – getting to know and learn from all your co-workers, helping them be successful whenever you can, asking for their help when its appropriate. And don’t choose who you get to know based on which side they’re on. Get to know everyone. Tamara believes that these types of reciprocal relationships can help you grow your career faster than even the more tried and true methods of career advancement – hard work and loyalty.
- Ask others for feedback on how you are doing. Get ahead of the office politics by asking for feedback from your peers and colleagues before it comes to you in other, less than constructive, ways. “How did I do in that meeting?” “What do you think I should be working on right now?” Peers and colleagues often have insights about how you’re doing that you won’t get from your boss. A co-worker will also tend to have a positive reaction when you ask them for their opinion. Look for people who you can trust to give you a straight shot. Be a person that others can trust to do the same for them.
- Don’t take conflict personally or emotionally. If you’re given feedback that you don’t think you deserve, or know that information is being circulated about you that is untrue, ask for more details to better understand what’s being said. If you find yourself in a place where you need to confront someone who you consider difficult, prepare for your conversation so as to keep your emotions in check. If you have a point of view that you want to be heard, spend the time researching the issue so you come to conversations prepared with the facts, not just your opinion.
- Clarify what’s expected. Even those unspoken norms that can often make a big difference in your career success. If someone tells you that your boss will expect you to be available to them by phone or text outside regular work hours, verify that expectation with your boss. What is their real need? Is there room to negotiate an alternative solution that will work better for you? Negotiate directly with your boss. Don’t agree to do something you cannot do. Don’t talk with others about the “fairness” of an expectation. Empower yourself to negotiate for what seems fair to you.
- Stay prepared to toot your own horn. As Tamara reminds – “when it comes to your career, its OK to vote for yourself.” Instead of stewing about your contributions not being noticed, put together a list of what you believe are the most important contributions you are making to your team. And don’t be shy about sharing your list as the situation warrants. Laying out your current job in a visual way (example: “Here are the additional duties that have been added to my plate over the last 2 months”.) will ensure that your boss has the information they need to view your contributions accurately.
Bottom-line, you have more control than you think about how your work is viewed by others.
I’m sure there are other ideas we could add to this list to help you manage the unique set of office politics you find yourself faced with. Our bottom-line advice is to stop pretending these politics don’t exist, or that you can somehow stay outside the fray and hope to “win.” In the end, “becoming adept at playing office politics is better than trying to avoid potential confrontations.”