Office politics are not optional

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Here is a message for people who say they can't stomach office politics: You will die a slow, painful career death. This is because there's no getting around office politics, and mastering them is essential to being able to steer your own career. Don't take that as bad news, though, because mastering office politics is good for your soul. Really.
Office politics is inescapable because it's about dealing with the people. When there is a group of people — anywhere, even on the playground — there is politics.

Let’s say you pack up your bags and go work in a national park, with trees and rivers and no cubicles. There will be politics about who has to take care of hikers when it’s raining and who gets to stay dry, and if you are bad at politics, you will be wet every time.

Politics is part of society. And my guess is that you want to participate in society (at least) so that you can support yourself. But people who are good at politics are generally empathetic (they understand who needs what) and they have good self-discipline (they can moderate themselves so they are pleasant to be with.)

Most people who hate politics think they have to change who they are to succeed. Really, though, anyone who is being their best self — kind, considerate, expressive, interested in others — will do fine in office politics.
So get to know yourself. Saying you just can’t do politics is giving up on being your best self.

And wait, there's more good news about office politics. If you really take a look at what's going on over there at the water cooler, people are not jockeying for power, they are hobnobing for projects. That's right. For most people in today's workplace, office politics is about getting the best opportunities to learn and grow; the best projects, the best training, the assignments that build skills the market values.

Office chatter with the vapid goal of getting power over other people is, frankly, a little offensive. But it is hard to fault people for wanting to grow and learn. In fact, I find more fault with people who care so little about personal growth that they won't spend the extra energy politiking to get themselves on good projects.

Maybe you are convinced, but you are feeling at a loss to get started. Here are relatively simple things that people who are good at office politics do:

1. Make time for it — both in terms of face time, and time alone to analyze the face time.
2. Listen. How can you learn anything when you're talking about what you already know?

Here are realtively difficult things that people who are good at office politics do:

1. Have genuine interest in other people. Each person is interesting if you are interseted enough to ask the right question.
2. Feel empathy. This means putting yourself in other peoples'shoes all the time. And not judging them.

Maybe you're still thinking of being the person at the office who abstains from office politics. Realize that you won't last long — in the office, that is. Putting your head down and doing your work is a good way to ensure that you don't connect with anyone. This situation is deadly in a world where people are hired for what they know and fired for who they are. People need to get to know you in order to like you.

The act of making yourself likeable is office politiking. You shouldn't have to be fake if you are a geniuinely nice and interested person. If office politics requires you to do soething that feels fake, consider that you were not likeable in the first place. For you, office politics is training ground to teach yourself to be likeable, and, as a side benefit, you will save your job. For others, office politics is the time at work when you get to be your best, true, self in search of more learning opportunities and more human connections.

4 replies
  1. Proteas
    Proteas says:

    “Really, though, anyone who is being their best self – kind, considerate, expressive, interested in others – will do fine in office politics.”

    I was all these but guess what;these were the traits my office rivals tried to take advantage on as they badmouthed me behind my back.However the manager of the company was also a lousy guy who abused verbally his employees and tried to play it “my way or the highway”..

    So unfair office politics reflect the inadequate management of the one who is in charge.I wouldn’t recommend to be kind is such circumstances-although it’s better to dump the company and go someplace else.




  2. m
    m says:

    About this statement: “…[A]nyone who is being their best self – kind, considerate, expressive, interested in others – will do fine in office politics.”

    Unfortunately, this sentiment would be great if it were true, but it’s not true, not at all.

    In fact, I think it’s harmful to tell impressionable young people and clueless older people that it’s true.

    Maybe in a very few special workplaces this is how it works, but in the majority of workplaces, politics is underhanded, slimy, power-grabbing, etc.

    In most places, if you behave the way that statement suggests, you will be eaten for breakfast.

    This is not to recommend being nasty or manipulative, but to guard yourself to the utmost around other people, because a few other people (and it’s hard to tell which ones they are, sometimes) in your life/work WILL be trying to grab what you’ve got, screw you over, make you look bad so they can look good: guaranteed.

  3. Ann Stanley
    Ann Stanley says:

    I have a major in politics but I like to focus on ‘spiritual’ or moral principles in my personal life. So I thought that behaving ‘politically’ was not for me as I considered politics to be antithetical to moralty. Last year because of my job I had to have a think about this and it was while doing some spiritual practice that I got the message that because we are in the real world we have to follow its rules. That’s the game we’re playing and you can’t play any game unless you know the rules. So that’s how I reconcile it. I haven’t had to do anything immoral, just strategic. Being a nice person goes part of the way but there’s a certian kind of knowledge that you have to have too, and that’s the knowledge that not everyone is acting in your interests. What strategies do you need in different situations? Who do you need to help you? What do those people need? These are political questions, and they don’t necessarily lead to immorality.

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