Navigating office Politics
We all want to make our mark at work. Hopes of a raise, promotion, or moving on to a more senior role often rest not only on doing our job well, but also in others noticing our success. But sometimes that natural ambition can go too far, and morphs into adopting the wrong kind of practices to get noticed. The murky world of office politics, including behaviors like undermining colleagues, feuding, incivility and such, leads to a toxic working environment. If you’re on the receiving end, it’s only a matter of time before office politics affects you. It’s stressful, you can end up hating your job, and it might even impact your health.
If you play office politics, you might think you’re doing yourself a favor and scaling that career ladder. But ultimately, however successful it makes you feel and however well you think you’re doing, you’re doomed to lose. You may win the political battle, but you will most certainly lose the competitive war. And what’s worse, you also risk making yourself unemployable.
Why is that? Employees that stay in a highly politicized environment, and especially those who are winning the political battles, develop highly specialized political skills that are actually negative to a healthy company environment. People playing politics tend to be focused on ‘winning’ the internal battle (most usually for themselves), rather than winning the competitive war against other companies.
Playing office politics is bad for your health
People should not stay too long in an environment that isn’t healthy for them. There’s evidence to show that people working in an unhealthy office environment can suffer stress which can lead to physical and mental health issues.
This can affect those who are on the receiving end of negative politics, but also those who are playing the game. It’s stressful trying to ‘stay ahead of the pack’ continuously, and ultimately counterproductive.
However, it’s important to say that I wouldn’t necessarily confuse high stress with the political. You can have a very high stress environment that is not political at all – it’s just a high stress environment. They’re not mutually exclusive.
Not all stressful environments are political, but most really political environments are stressful.
Playing office politics affects your performance
Working in a politicized environment, especially if you seem to be succeeding in that arena, could be your downfall.
You’ll develop skills and traits that will affect you and the company negatively. For example:
- You develop a lack of trust in your colleagues
- You become adept at maneuvering and manipulating people
- You learn how to ‘spin’ situations to your advantage
- You become adept at taking credit and assigning blame
- You get very good at covering your ass!
- You’re always looking for how your situation can be improved rather than focusing on the overall good of the team or company
Not only that, but you’ll also get a reputation for being untrustworthy and self-serving, and ultimately as someone who’s not part of the team.
Playing office politics is bad for your future career
Staying such an environment too long can be a career killer. Not only will you develop the wrong kind of skills, but your reputation for playing politics will likely precede you into another job.
Any hiring manager worth their salt will do thorough reference checks and ask around to find out about your reputation from people who know about you.
They’re unlikely to take you on if they hear things like:
- They’re very difficult to work with
- They’re very selfish
- They’re a power player
- They’re eager for their own advancement
- They’re eager for control
- They’re an empire builder
As a CEO, I hear those things – it does come through.
Even more importantly, you may actually pass the job interview and get the job. What I’ve found is that if you’ve been too long in an environment that’s highly political, you develop the skills to survive (and possibly even thrive), in that environment. You learn to defend yourself and to advance yourself. But those exact skills are the ones that are really corrosive, will corrupt a healthy office environment, and will repel people.
Taking on a manager who plays office politics can have a devastating effect on the team. All of a sudden, you introduce a person that’s been trained to succeed in a highly political environment. When you drop them into an environment where people are not used to operating that way, one of three things happens: it’s going to create chaos in the team, they’re going to get rejected, or if they’re successful, you’re now on your way to creating a highly political environment. As a manager, that’s the last thing I want, and this holds true for others too.
For example, in his expert interview for Paysa.com, David Karnstedt (CEO of Quantifind) identifies an important takeaway he learned from working with Dan Rosenweig at Yahoo: “If it’s not fair to the company or anyone else to keep an employee that doesn’t fit there, it’s probably best to let them go.”
The positive side of office politics
Although being political is not a good way to operate, the resilience and personal skills needed to combat negative office politics is a useful arsenal to develop. Being on the receiving end of negative office politics may also make you a better manager by learning how not to do things.
But there are also some very positive ‘political’ skills that can be used for good! For example:
- Being a good communicator & and a good listener – this helps develop strong and positive professional relationships within the team
- Building consensus and alignment – a team that is working towards the same goals is more likely to succeed
- Motivating employees and team mates – a well-motivated team will achieve more and feel better about their role in achieving it
- Understanding others’ priorities – demonstrating understanding of the barriers facing others and their priorities helps cement the team’s bonding
Working in a dynamic team environment that rejects negative office politics and strives towards unity and purpose, requires you to stick to three principles:
1. Always be clear on your objectives
It’s important to understand exactly what your objectives are, and to work towards them. Don’t get sucked into worrying about what others are doing and trying to outshine them.
2. Always be clear that your goal is for the company to win
Where people are just trying to advance their own cause, oftentimes the primary goals of the company fall by the wayside. At the end of the day, you’re working on behalf of the company to advance its cause, whatever that might be.
3. Always be clear on how to define winning
So it’s important to know what success looks like, to know how it’s measured, and to know how you contribute to that. That gives you clarity, and you can then orientate your actions accordingly.
You will need these ‘good’ political skills, so use them and sharpen them, and they will help the company and your career. When you do that, and you articulate your goals well, things become really clear. You can stand on terra firma when you’re working in a political environment.
Political skills used negatively, with the goal of just advancing your own self -interests and increasing your power base, are bad. Always remember – the battle is to be fought against your competitors, not against your peers, and definitely not within your own company.
Author: Chris Bolte