Whether you’re in the running or watching from the side-lines, it pays to keep this advice in mind when it comes to office politics.
Office politics is usually discussed as an external hindrance to be avoided, like traffic during the morning commute. But just as rush-hour drivers tend not to recognise that they are traffic,many professionals don’t see themselves as a part of their workplace’s political landscape. On the other hand, most seem to realise that you can’t completely escape office politics. In a recent survey of North American workers by our company, 62 per cent of respondents said they consider involvement in office politics a necessity for career growth.
For administrative professionals in particular, the dangers of office politics are clear. Gaining a reputation as someone willing to do anything to get ahead can quickly undermine your ability to serve your boss and collaborate with a wide range of co-workers. But that doesn’t mean you should try to keep yourself entirely out of office politics — an impossible goal that can leave you detached from your colleagues.
Most careers are best served by a middle course between immersion in power struggles and strict avoidance of them — a strategy that’s perhaps better termed ‘office diplomacy.’ While it can be difficult to remain a neutral party, you can help ensure that power struggles don’t interfere with your success. Being aware and thoughtful about office politics can help you strengthen your reputation, build professional relationships, stay informed about emerging challenges — and maybe even help clean up your workplace’s political landscape.
Tangled in the Grapevine
What constitutes ‘political’ activity in the workplace? In the aforementioned survey, employees were asked to name the most common forms; gossiping or spreading rumours was by far the most popular answer with 54 per cent, followed by flattering the boss to gain favour (20 per cent) and taking credit for others’ work (17 per cent).
The best foundation for any aspiring office diplomat is to avoid gossip — both passing it along and encouraging others to share theirs. The momentary connection you make with the person with whom you’re sharing details simply isn’t worth the risk of developing a reputation as someone who can’t be trusted with confidential information.
That said, you needn’t plug your ears and hum loudly whenever you hear something that might be construed as a rumour. Paying attention to what’s being said around the office is one way to remain aware of emerging trends and news in your workplace that can help you identify potential challenges before they develop. Be careful, however, not to take any piece of hearsay at face value.
Campaign Management Tips
Most other elements of workplace politics aren’t so black-and-white. Here are some of the main planks of a successful platform:
- Don’t seek to impress. A lot of office political blunders are the result of being too intent on convincing others of your value. Taking more than your share of credit, ‘humble bragging,’ and downplaying someone else’s accomplishments are all symptoms of this same insecurity. And all of those behaviours will be quickly recognised by your colleagues. It’s fine to let your boss know about something you’ve accomplished, but otherwise you should resist the temptation to draw attention to your achievements, however subtle you think you’re being. They’ll shine much brighter if you leave them alone. Acknowledging a mistake you’ve made, on the other hand, can win you admirers by demonstrating confidence and honesty.
- Find ways to help. Lasting workplace alliances are built on helping people and by establishing common ground with them. Unfortunately, the most readily available area of agreement is often a mutual dislike for someone or something at the office. Instead, find a way to make that person’s job easier — as long as you can do so without expecting an equivalent reward. Even a small instance of selfless assistance may be remembered for years.
- Avoid sensitive topics. Help people notice the similarities they share with you, rather than the differences. Talking about politics, religion or other charged topics at work can alienate anyone within earshot — and even beyond, when your views are repeated to others. While you shouldn’t be so relentlessly inoffensive that no one can get a sense of who you really are, you should consider how your words might be taken by someone who doesn’t share your opinions. When in doubt about a topic, keep it at home.
- Kiss the babies. You don’t have to go to extremes to make a habit of friendliness.A simple hello in the hallway or question about a coworker’s weekend can go a long way toward establishing rapport. But don’t ask if you don’t want to listen to the answer. Genuine acknowledgement of others is what makes it meaningful and memorable. If such gestures don’t come naturally to you, that’s all the more reason to get in the habit of making the effort.
Watch for Warning Signs
Spotting bad office politics in others tends to be much easier than recognising it in yourself. A simple exercise can help you identify unconscious habits that can get you in trouble. Below are four of the most common types of office politicians, along with a related question to ask yourself. If you answer ‘yes’ to any of these, you might want to take a closer look at your behaviour. Identifying your own tendencies can help you respond to them in others without resorting to retaliation or smear campaigns.
- The Scandal-Monger. Spreads information and speculation about others’ personal and professional lives, with little regard for accuracy or the damage it might cause.
Red flag: When someone asks you to swear your secrecy, do you usually do so, just to receive the juicy information?
- The Star. Takes credit, sometimes at the expense of others who also were involved; finds ways to call attention to successes while sweeping failures under the rug.
Red flag: In order to enjoy an accomplishment of yours, do you need someone else to recognise it?
- The Sycophant. Flatters others, especially those in power, in an attempt to gain favour.
Red flag: When you compliment someone at work and they don’t reciprocate, do you feel disappointed?
- The Saboteur. Relentlessly competes against coworkers, sometimes even setting them up for failure or pitting them against each other.
Red flag: Do you often compare yourself to others at work and fear you don’t measure up?
Not a Popularity Contest
An underlying mistake many office politicians make is confusing their professional standing with a popularity contest. The most successful ones tend to pay some heed to political concerns — but not too much. Keeping an eye on the ‘opinion polls’ and trying to make sure everyone likes you can get in the way of doing your best work, which is bound to occasionally involve displeasing others. By being engaged yet cautious, you can make office politics work for you whether you’re the most popular candidate or not.
For more advice about thriving in your workplace’s political arena, check out How to Navigate Office Politics: Your Guide to Getting Ahead. It’s available for download at www.roberthalf.com/bloopers.