Office politics is not optional: Five tips for doing it better

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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.

32 replies
  1. Jeremy
    Jeremy says:

    This mostly rings true for me, although I think it requires a clarification of goals. Right up front, most of these people in the post appear to be assuming that we want to climb the ladder, and this is not always the case.

    In some ways, I’ve done the opposite of most of these pieces of advice, withdrawing almost completely from corporate culture, while still retaining my job. I made several decisions that I knew would preclude me getting promotions:

    — requested working at home, so I only go into the office once a week. I’m nearly invisible (literally and figuratively) in the office, which saves me a lot of hassle.

    — when I attend meetings about things that matter (I don’t go into the office if they don’t), I tell it straight and I do get emotionally involved…it’s not because of stress, it’s because I care enough to say the things everyone knows and is afraid to say. Although this hasn’t always made people happy, it seems to have earned me some respect.

    — I took lengthy parental leaves when both my daughters were born, knowing full well the signals those decisions send to the ladder-climbers. I missed cool projects and wasn’t involved in interesting decisions during that time, but I had other priorities.

    — I take at least a month of unpaid vacation every year, in addition to the woefully inadequate three weeks of paid holidays. My colleagues grumble that they wish they could do it too, but they’re too busy worrying about the political (and financial) implications.

    So, no, my strategies haven’t helped me climb the ladder, and I’m not involved in as much interesting work as I’d like. BUT, I’m glad I made my decisions knowing those things up front, because I’ve been able to achieve my other goals: spending more time with my family and friends, setting my own schedule, eliminating commuting time, and avoiding dealing with office politics.

    Perhaps it’s a weird middle ground between corporate climber and free agent…not always easy middle ground, but interesting if you know what you’re trying to achieve.

  2. Pat
    Pat says:

    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.

    This is a pretty stereotypical view of programming. Unless you’re a ‘one man band’, writing software purely for your own consumption, sooner or later you have to communicate with your team, your boss and your customers. Assuming that you want to ‘get ahead’, you’ll have to develop communication skills to match your programming skills.

  3. Timothy Johnson
    Timothy Johnson says:

    Penelope – Great post but Jansen was not totally on target with all of his advice. For example, his advice to conform and not buck the system is a dangerous mindset to have in our business society that is now “worshipping” at the altar of Seth Godin’s Purple Cow. One can be different without being divisive. Also, his networking advice is only half there… one needs to be careful about choosing networking partners. Politics make strange bedfellows, and cozying up to the wrong people (proactively or reactively) can be fatal. Choose your allies wisely would be better advice. Over all, though, some good points to think about.

  4. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Okay, okay. I hear you. All three. I think this post is a little off. It’s too conservative. The people I interviewed are all a little conservative and they assume a very conservative audience.

    When I did these interviews, though, I picked people who would come down hard on those who think they’re above office politics. Everyone needs to make an effort to understand and accommodate the people they work with. If nothing else, there is virtue in teamwork and each team requires a little conformity in order to function.

    I wish I had struck a more happy/medium, but actually, the post and comments together sort of get to that middle ground.

    Jeremy, BTW I love the set of choices you list in your post. I love them because you are so clearly trying to blaze a new path for yourself that blends personal fulfillment without having to settle for a meaningless job: Three cheers. Careers like yours are the most interesting to watch.

  5. Diana
    Diana says:

    Penelope, don’t be so hard on yourself. One of the most admirable (and terrifying!) things about putting your words out there for public consumption is that not everyone will agree with you all the time. You can’t expect a 100% sucess rate for all your posts.

    The important thing (as I see it) is that you continue to raise important issues that challenge the reader to re-evaluate. The best posts are sometimes the most controversial, because it gets people talking/thinking/debating things that may not be on their minds otherwise.

  6. Jasmine
    Jasmine says:

    Hi there, just want to say hi from a remote country called China. I very much like your blog and now reads it quite regularly.. please do keep up!

    now on the office politics thing, I think both you and Jeremy made valid points and in the end it’s what we put as priority in our life that counts. I was in the States for 6 years up until last year and came back to my home country to work. It turned out that politics is an internaltional thing and I am yet to sort out my own strategy in this arena.

  7. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Jasmine, thanks for writing in from China. I’d love to hear how office politics are different for you there. I think the differences would shed light on how to succeed in both places.

  8. Jasmine
    Jasmine says:

    Frankly I think there are more similarities than differences. The 5 points suggested by Janson could most likily work here as well, especially the last one which is “to network before you need to network”. In Chinese there is a saying “One never go to a Buddhist temple for nothing” and it’s often used as a scarsism for people who “network” only when needed.

  9. Prashant
    Prashant says:

    My current boss set a KRA for my forthcoming appraisal – do I spend enough time with my peers/subordinates? (Even those who are currently not on my team). This requires that I move around the cubes, meeting people and chatting with them, at least once a day. I’ve devised 2 methods for increasing the effectiveness:

    1. I take a different route to the bathroom/water cooler every time
    2. I keep an open box of candies on my desk, so that people are tempted to stop by and pick one. If I’m busy, I just smile. Otherwise, I chat with them for a couple of minutes.



  10. Mel
    Mel says:

    Penelope, I just came across this article. Don’t you think that office politics can be used against someone to create a perception of someone that ISN’T reality? My boss attempted to penalize me because a subordinate (not using this pejoratively, but someone lower in rank in the department) “thought” that I didn’t speak to him one day when I was all of the way across the room from him, engaged in conversation with someone else. Then, I was told that even though these people–who are just as human as I–may not speak to me on a repeated in the hallways (which I think is quite rude), etc., I should ALWAYS speak to them, because I am seen as the “professional person.” Through this, people viewed me as a mean, unlikable person, but I say that whatever your rank, if you don’t talk to me, I’m only going to continue to suffer from the indignation of NOT getting a response from you when you are right in my face or when I pass you by in the hallway for so long. I think it’s rude and I think it’s also an ABUSE of office politics when subordinates with self-esteem problems create incidents to make superiors (but not managers) look as though the superiors are the ones who are the bad ones. I think it’s bull shyt, and I just wanted to point out how people can ABUSE you through office politics, just because they don’t like you.

  11. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I just want to give Jeremy KUDOS!! Great response, I admire you for going after the goals that were more important to you. I am really beginning to think the corporate ladder climbing, office politics, “I feel like I’m back in high school sometimes” cliques I have experienced in my past jobs have pushed me to my limit. I CAN’T TAKE IT..I DESPISE OFFICE POLITICS!!

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  14. Jams
    Jams says:

    I had been discussing this issue with my older sister the other day, now I will have one particular a lot more argument in my hand when it'll arrive to confrontation the moment yet again….

  15. Mary Botham
    Mary Botham says:

    Wow, the smoking gun as to why US business and the economy are steadily failing! Just like the consistent failures in education, too many people are busy worrying about intangibles they have no control over (people will either like you or they won’t, you can’t make them)and not getting their work done. Yes, it’s important to respect others but I’m tired of putting in unpaid overtime to pick up the slack for my chatty co-worker who consistently leaves early.

  16. CNA
    CNA says:

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  17. Sophia
    Sophia says:

    I have tried the box of candies theory and some of those people that ate most of the candies still bit my ass when it came to crunch time. The best advice is -choose your allies wisely.

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