Career moves: How to win the office politics game

“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. Next, let's talk about how to run a positive campaign, as well as how to effectively deal with negative politics.

Running a Good Campaign

In part one, I touched on the importance of promoting yourself and your team, and we'll explore that a little more, as well as other ways to engage in positive office politics, with the following best practices:

  • Network up and down. Politicians go on the road to meet “the people,” and you have to do the same, but within your company. For example, I had a department head who weighed in on my evaluation, but I had no interaction with this person. Once again my favorite supervisor had the perfect solution: find a project that will get you some face-time. She helped me get in on a project in which the head of the department was involved, and I was able to make a favorable and direct impression.
  • Find a mentor (or two). If you don't already have one, make it your goal to find a mentor in the next two weeks. I had a couple of them at my last job, and they helped me navigate difficult personalities; look for solutions when I needed a sounding board; and check my e-mails for sarcasm (priceless if, like me, sarcasm comes as naturally as exhaling). Most people like to help others — just be sure to come to him or her with a problem and a few possible solutions. Your mentor isn't there to listen to you complain or to solve all of your problems for you.
  • Take initiative. Start something new, even if it's just a fun thing for your coworkers to do together. Some of my coworkers organized yoga-at-work classes during lunch, fundraising activities, and office holiday celebrations. It doesn't have to be something that increases revenue to show leadership and team-building skills. (Although if you can identify a way to increase revenue, by all means, go for it!)
  • Overcome your fear of speaking up. Many people have good ideas, but they're afraid of being shot down or of what might happen if the idea bombs. But participation is an important part of good office politics. It shows that you're engaged and thinking of solutions. If you're too scared to speak up, talk to your mentor about ways to present your ideas at the next meeting or try joining a speaking group, such as Toastmasters.
  • Look for ways to look good. And not only ways to make yourself look good, but find ways to make your team, your boss, and your company look good. For example, I knew a designer who entered every design contest she could. If the company paid her entry fee, she entered something. She tried to get her coworkers to enter, too, but if one declined, she'd enter a second design into the contest. When she'd win one, it made her look good, and it made her design team and department look good, which in turn made her boss look good. And every boss wants to look good.
  • Think about the best interest of the team or company. Before asserting your opinion or arguing your case, ask yourself who will benefit. Are you against change because you don't want to take the time to learn something new, even though it'll improve a system? Think big-picture and beyond your immediate desires. When a disagreement starting going downhill, try to get the group to refocus on the big picture.
  • Be positive. This isn't always easy. Believe me, I've never been accused of being Little Miss Sunshine. But the people who constantly complain and play the victim are no fun to be around. People will start avoiding you, even if what you say has some merit. One coworker and I had a routine to deal with tough days at the office: We'd meet at the picnic tables for lunch and spend the first 10 minutes or so venting, then we'd move on and discuss anything but work. Sometimes it's cathartic to get things off your chest, but it doesn't lead to positive solutions, so don't dwell on it. You want a reputation as a problem-solver, not a whiner.

Unfortunately, there's more to it than running a good campaign. You also have to live with the negative politics.

Dealing With Bad Office Politics

It can be difficult to stay positive if you feel like you're living in an episode of The Office, but there are ways to deal with bad politics. Here are some tactics to deal with the negative:

  • Don't participate in the telephone game. Gossip will inevitably reach your cubicle, but ask yourself if there's any credibility to the rumors. Whether there is or there isn't, don't pass it on. People who enjoy gossip usually only have half the story, and taking part is a sure way to wind up with your foot in your mouth.
  • Get to know the people who practice bad politics. Instead of distancing yourself from them, as I once did, get to know these people better. Try to understand their motivations and goals to work more harmoniously with them (or at least avoid being in the crossfire as much as possible). Be polite, but be careful about what you say, too, which brings us to the next point…
  • Watch what you say “in confidence.” Most things said in confidence will get out, usually starting with “I'm not supposed to say anything, but…” Disclose at your own risk. I tried to be professional and polite to everyone I worked with, but there were very few coworkers I trusted. Just because you like someone doesn't mean you can trust them with your confidential information.
  • Want to give someone a piece of your mind? Keep it to yourself. You might think it would feel good to “put someone in their place,” but it comes at a steep price. You'll lose a potential ally (the target of your rage), and you'll be viewed as unprofessional and difficult, which will affect future promotions.
  • When all else fails, keep documentation. Sometimes you'll encounter a particularly difficult person. If that's the case, it's unfortunate but necessary to keep records in case the situation escalates or winds up in human resources. Again, keep it to yourself. The last thing you want is for your coworker to hear that you're keeping a file on them — that's a quick way to make a bad situation worse.

Whether you call it office politics, networking, or people skills, learning to work well with others is a part of any office-based career (and I'd argue it's just as important for entrepreneurs and freelancers).

What are some ways you practice good politics? How have you proactively dealt with negative situations?

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