This post is from staff writer April Dykman.
“Office politics” is one of those phrases that used to make me groan. I worked in an office from the time I was a freshman in college until I quit my job last year, and let me tell you, I had my fill. I dealt with situations that would make our presidential candidates wince, and I tried many approaches to deal with it, such as pretending to be completely oblivious to it (a very bad idea, by the way).
But I had one boss, the best manager I’ve ever had, who was great at the game. She’s the one who taught me how to do things like keep a brag folder and remind a senior manager 10 different ways that she still hadn’t approved a proposal. In fact, she was so diplomatic and professional that one of the only “negative” things I heard about her was “she gets along with everyone.” (Yes, she was being bad-mouthed for not taking sides.)
I learned many valuable lessons from this manager, and I came away with a much different understanding of office politics.
Politics and personal finance
I started thinking about the role of office politics while reading yet another report on our nation’s unemployment situation. In September, the nation’s jobless rate was at 9.1%, but that figure from the Labor Department doesn’t include the underemployed and those who’ve stopped looking for work. When the underemployed and the discouraged are figured into the equation, the unemployment rate rises to 16.5%. But even that number doesn’t paint the whole picture. An MSN article points out that employment has suffered in other ways, such as:
- Self-employed workers whose incomes have declined
- Former full-time employees who accepted short-term contracts for much less pay and no benefits
- Workers who decided to take on more debt and go back to school, hoping that an advanced degree will land them a better job
It’s a tough time to ask for a raise or tell your jerk of a boss “I quit!” and march triumphantly out the door when you’re worried about job loss. But if you play the office politics game right, you can have better year-end reviews (which go a long way toward getting that raise) and make your work life much easier. In other words, don’t make things harder on yourself by dealing with politics the wrong way — your psyche and your paycheck will only suffer for it.
It’s a fact of life
No matter how you try to hide, office politics will find you. Career site Mind Tools explains that it’s an inevitable part of work life for the following reasons:
- Some people have more power than others because of hierarchy or influence. For example, at many organizations, seniority plays a factor in the decision-making process, even though it’s not explicitly stated.
- There’s often some form of competition within an organization. It could be anything from a promotion to the corner office to the choice projects. When two colleagues are up for the same promotion, for example, there’s usually a lot of politicking in the office.
- Many people feel emotionally invested in their job, which means they’ll take measures to get their way. This isn’t necessarily a negative thing, but when two coworkers have conflicting ideas or goals, it can be a problem.
- Work decisions are affected by professional goals and personal factors, creating more possibilities for conflict. For instance, one employee with a child is allowed to work half-days, while another isn’t given the option.
- Office teams and departments often compete for finite resources, which is usually short-sighted and ignores the best interest of the organization. When there’s only enough money for 10 new computers, suddenly every department thinks their need is the greatest.
Even people who don’t work in an office have to deal with workplace politics. My dad, for example, is self-employed, but when he’s on a job site, he still deals with gossip and power plays. It can’t be avoided when you work with people.
Why we have to deal with it
I mentioned that I’d tried to separate myself from office politics once. I kept to myself and avoided any conversations that were gossip-like in nature. I clocked in, did my job, and clocked out. Good plan, right?
Wrong. I soon learned that even if you don’t acknowledge the bad politics, you’ll still suffer from it. In fact, you often suffer worse because you’re less aware of what’s going on around you. Others will continue to take advantage of politics, and meanwhile you’re basically sticking your head in the sand.
You also can’t ignore it by refusing to practice good office politics, such as networking and self-promotion. I had a coworker who complained that her colleague was getting all of the attention and accolades. She believed people should do a good job and then let the work speak for itself. Unfortunately, her approach wasn’t ever going to pay off. By not practicing good politics, she was missing chances to promote herself, her team, and her organization. You don’t have to brag, but you do have to promote your work in a professional and appropriate manner. Remember, too, that most managers are busy people who can’t be expected to notice (and remember) every success from every employee.
It wasn’t until my last two years as an employee that my attitude about office politics shifted, which is why I felt it was important to talk about why politics exists and why we just have to accept it as a fact of life. But politics can be a good thing, and next week, in part two of this article, we’ll talk about how to run a positive campaign, as well as how to effectively deal with negative politics.