How to Navigate Politics in the Workplace
Published: May 23, 2016 By Kelly Bilodeau
Most workers when asked will tell you they hate office politics. One poll of 169 employees found that 61 percent of people said they only reluctantly took part in office politics, while another 20 percent said they do their best to ignore office politics whenever they can.
They see office politics as the reason why that incompetent, brown-nosing coworker got that undeserved raise. "Office politics can be seen as the cause of a perceived or real injustice in the workplace. 'He only got that promotion because he knows how to play office politics.'" said Janice L. Marturano, founder and executive director of the Institute for Mindful Leadership.
But while workers may not like it, a majority, some 62 percent, said they also know office politics is important to getting ahead in the workplace. The truth is, even if you hate it, you really can't avoid it, says Beth Weissenberger, cofounder and president of the Handel Group Corp & HG Sports. "There is always politics in an office," she says. The game is always going on whether you like it or not. But she often works with clients who just don't want to play. "People say, 'Why should I play, I work hard, they should see how hard I'm working and I should be promoted based on that." says Weissenberger.
Unfortunately, that doesn't happen. The problem with not playing, it puts you in a default role—one that you may not like, she says. And the hard-working "good guys," all too often get passed over for promotions that are given to people who are willing to play the game.
But politics doesn't have to be a bad word. It can be a positive business strategy, said Weissenberger. "It's about being great and building relationships. It's about creating your reputation at every minute of every day."
The problem for many is that even if they understand the need to get involved in office politics, this in-office schmoozing is like a foreign language. One survey of some 2400 accounting and finance professionals showed that 33 percent said they didn't know how to handle office politics when they came out of school.
"One of the most difficult challenges is that people don't know the 'rules of the game' or, for that matter, even if there is in fact a game being played," says Marturano. "There is a pervasive quality of secrecy about office politics. As a result, we can find ourselves filling in the void with our own internal movies about the nature and effect of office politics." In fact, a Robert Half survey of more than 700 adult North American workers found that 54 percent of people polled thought office politics most often took the form of gossip or rumor spreading.
While it can take that form it doesn't have to and you don't have to be a natural at office politics to succeed at it. Using a scientific approach can help get you ahead.
That approach includes assessing the current landscape. Write down everyone in your business that is important to your career. Rate your current relationships with important people within the organization, ranking them from one to 10, said Weissenberger. If they're below an eight you need to get to work. Each day or week work toward building bridges with those individuals. "Ask senior people to mentor you," she says. Schedule times to meet with key people for coffee or lunch. Whenever people list who they should develop relationships with, they often come up with a million reasons why they shouldn't or can't speak with them. "Stop being scared and go out and build the relationship."
Also, try to stick to reality. "We are all masters of film-making, often fiction. We see a promotion, or a reassignment, and we set about writing full length feature films about the whys and the why-nots. What did she do that got her that advancement? What didn't I do?" said Marturano. "It can be exhausting and distracting, and it certainly is not helpful for anyone." Resist the impulse. "Stop for a few moments and ask yourself, 'What do I actually know about what is happening? What appears to be true?' And then do what you can to get the facts. Is there something you want to change about how you are steering your work life—your career? Is there a new relationship you want to explore or modify? What might be the impact of such a change on your career? On the business objective?" said Marturano.
Struggles and inequities do exist, but choosing to approach them differently can help you get ahead.
Perhaps the most effective way to defeat office politics is to stop seeing it as a threat and start using it as a tool. "If you don't care about advancing your career—if your job is just a paycheck and your life is not about the job—then you don't have to do this," said Weissenberger. "But if you want to get promoted, build the relationships."