For many, the words “office politics” conjure images of manipulating, back-stabbing, or slippery co-workers who kiss-up to the boss and flaunt their influence to get what they want. The words reek of unfairness and are almost always used to refer to the underbelly of the workplace. Many employees flat out refuse to get involved or pledge to keep their head down, do their work, and avoid the drama. There are a couple problems with this, though. This viewpoint of office politics is incomplete—and avoiding them can actually hurt your career.
It happened to me. I flamed out in a job, meaning I lost my influence, because I neglected the hidden norms and rules that, for example, dictate those projects that get approved and those that don’t. I was naïve about the relationships and exposure I needed to get support for my work.
So, I spent a lot of time complaining about how unfair things were. But in actuality, the key decision-makers didn’t know me, and I was clueless to the broader organizational influences of conflicting priorities, diverse leadership personalities, and uncertain budgets. Had I spent more time learning about these factors and building relationships with the people who could advocate for me, I would have had a different experience.
Seeking to understand office politics more broadly and accepting them as a natural and predictable aspect of work, benefits everyone. Here’s some guidance.
How to understand office politics
If you too have a distaste for this aspect of work, it’s time to expand your understanding. The text Organizational Behavior offers this definition: “Organizational politics are informal, unofficial, and sometimes behind-the-scenes efforts to sell ideas, influence an organization, increase power, or achieve other targeted objectives.” Notice the neutrality of the definition.
How these efforts are employed is what makes them good or bad. Bad politics look like falsifying information to get more funding, gossiping about coworkers, and taking credit for others’ work. Good politics look like building relationships up, down, and across the organization, sharing information, and seeking ways to advance the mission, which means potentially letting go of your own ambition.
I advocate that leaders and teams start talking about good politics to take the sting out of the one-sided connotation of them. Look around and notice how people are using informal or unofficial ways to get things done for the greater good of the team or organization. You can also do this and be able to step into workplace politics—but in a way that feels right.
Know the skills needed for good office politics
If you want to get good at navigating office politics, it’s important to know the skills required. Gerald Ferris, a professor at the University of Florida and co-author of the book Political Skill at Work, and colleagues have identified four dimensions of political skill in the workplace:
- Social astuteness: Knowing how other people see you and how your behavior impacts them.
- Interpersonal influence: A convincing ability to affect how and what other people think by understanding them.
- Networking ability: The capacity to form mutually beneficial relationships with a wide range of diverse people.
- Apparent sincerity: Seeming to be honest and open, which inspires support and trust. This is key: It’s not enough to be honest. People must believe you’re honest.
Researchers have found that high performance in these dimensions can make or break someone’s effectiveness at work. As Robert Kaiser, Tomas Chamorro-Prezumic, and Derek Lusk write in Harvard Business Review, “these political skills affect your career independent of your personality and intelligence. On the one hand, political skill can compensate for being less outgoing or not being the smartest person in the room. On the other hand, a deficit of political skill can derail otherwise intelligent, honest, and hard-working people.”
Knowing the skills needed is the first step. The second step is to start practicing them. The easiest place to start is by building relationships with a wide range of people. Start within your own department and progressively expand across department silos. The mindset to hold is centered on relationship-building, knowing that this relationship may prove beneficial to a future endeavor.
Partner with someone who excels at office politics
Because each organization has its own flavor of politics, it’s helpful to learn from those emersed in the culture. While training might help, the real advancement comes from seeing and discussing how politics play out in the organization with a person skilled at it.
Having someone provide guidance as you flex the new skills is even better. As you have these discussions, be transparent and share you want to learn how to positively navigate politics in the organization. Plan to interact with people who only associate politics as something bad. You’ll be the first to educate them.
If you don’t know where to start, ask around and find out who is most respected in the organization. Don’t ask for most powerful or influential or even the one most politically savvy. The people associated with those terms may be more closely aligned with the bad, instead of the good. Seek out respect. Often, these folks have the abilities that demonstrate healthy political skills.
As much as we would all like to ignore or avoid office politics, we can’t. They are here to stay. They are a natural part of humans working together. The choice is in how to play them, for the good or for the bad. Start practicing the skills and partner with those most respected. You’ll find that it’s really all about establishing and nurturing positive workplace relationships.