John Annabel, of Northampton, walked into the office one day to find himself working side by side with a new employee whose only qualification seemed to be that she was having an affair with Annabel's department head. Annabel says people didn't particularly care that she was in the office doing no work until she started taking credit for everyone else's work, most frequently Annabel's.
“I wanted to strangle my boss,” Annabel says. “I wanted to bring that dirtbag girlfriend down before she took credit for one more thing.” But Annabel's supervisor told him to stay calm and to say nothing damaging. He pointed out that the manager would never fire the woman, and the two of them would deny all of Annabel's accusations; complaining would only make Annabel look bad.
So everyone in the department laid low — said nothing about the woman who did nothing except among themselves. When the company went through a reorganization, and the department head changed, the new head said, “Does anyone know what this woman does?” And everyone said, “No,” and she was laid off.
In fact, though, office politics might be the most important skill to master as you climb up the corporate ladder. Julie Jansen, author of I Don't Know What I Want, but I Know It's Not This, says that in corporate life, one has no choice but to be savvy about politics. “Politics is everywhere. It is about the way things are done. It is the personality of the company.” So you have to figure out how to fit in. She tells people, “Be an actor, play the game, follow culture and this is jus as big a part of your job as anything else.”
In the end, Annabel left his job in an effort to escape the political climate of his last job, which left him cold. And he hopes to never have to deal with office politics again.
Larry Stybel, president of Stybel Peabody Lincolnshire, says that is it a common reaction to refuse to participate in office politics, but he advises those people “to just get over it.” Politics is not something you can escape. “Politics is really setting objectives and developing a coalition of people that will help achieve that objective.” Stybel explains that office politics does not have to be a bad thing. After all, politics is primarily about diplomacy and coalition building.
Stybel recommends taking the same approach Annabel did in his last job: Find a mentor in the office, someone who is great at office politics, get some direct advice from them about tough spots, but also study them from afar to figure out what they do right.
Jansen adds, “There is a tremendous amount of resistance to office politics.” Many people complain that this sort of behavior goes against who they are at their core. Jansen points out that done right, politics is not inherently immoral. It merely involves, “speaking to the right people, going to the right parties and communicating the way everyone else at the company communicates.”
While Jansen advises that you should not compromise your core values to be political, if you find that you can't ever engage in office politics without violating your core values, then you don't belong in corporate America.
Jansen suggests five steps you can take to be more politically astute immediately:
1. Don't try to change or resist company culture including dress, communication styles and office hours. Being different does not work.
2. Practice self-awareness. This is a life-long task and every day you can become a little bit more aware of how people perceive you. Just doing your job is not enough. You need to do it in a way that makes a positive impression on everyone else.
3. Manage your stress levels so you can avoid emotional displays of inconsistent behavior and inconsistent messages. Most emotional outbursts come from unmanaged stress.
4. Be approachable all the time — in your cube, in the hallway, even in the bathroom.
5. Network before you need to network. Being good at politics means that you are good at relationship building, and you can count on a wide range of people when you need them.
But some people will never feel comfortable playing the political game. For those people, Stybel recommends a job where one can say, “Leave me alone” and still excel at the work: Sales would be a definite no, but a career in, say, programming might work. But take a look at yourself. If you don't have the skills for a leave-me-alone job, you need the skills to make office politics work for you. Otherwise you'll get stuck.