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Politics at Work: The New Rules

Posted on 2019-12-09 10:00:00

What you need to know

Getting the job is not the problem, surviving it is. To someone new to the job (and company), it can be pretty nerve-wracking. You have to think about how you present yourself, in appearance and personality. You would have to work through the vast layers of power; figuring out your place among your peers, superiors, and if applicable, subordinates is no easy feat. On top of that, you have new work challenges and responsibilities to think about.

Usually, when human resources interviews and hires, they would already have assessed your fit with the company. This is a small measure of comfort, but never forget that the real work starts the minute you take up your new role. What is a fit in theory may not go entirely to plan in reality. Perhaps the person who hired you for your analytical skills and sunny personality doesn’t really know that the team you’re assigned to is resentful because you are replacing a well-loved colleague who had been laid off.

For you, the games have begun. Office politics has existed for years, and it is usually the thirst for ambition and power that fuels it. The players are employees from all levels, from the bottom of the barrel to the top echelons. Human dynamics and emotions are involved, and personalities will clash, not to mention goals and personal agendas. According to Dobson & Dobson, who wrote the book Enlightened Office Politics: Understanding, Coping With, and Winning the Game - Without Losing Your Soul, gaining power early on is important. Having one or more of the six types of power is key to survival – role, respect, rhetoric, resources, relationship and reason or purpose. To gain these powers, one must have an arsenal of skills on hand – people and communication skills rank high, just as it is important to maintain integrity and ethics. Although if you go by the office politics portrayed on TV shows and movies, you would think a lack of the latter two helps more than hinders. But it stands to reason that without ethics and integrity, it would be impossible to rally people to your course and gain support (the power associated with this would be relationship). You would be hard-pressed to earn respect and faith of performance in a bigger role. Dobson and Dobson believe that building relationships, the right management skills, and a strong passion for the job may push a candidate forward.

In an essay about office politics for CNN.com, Louellen Essex, co-author of Manager’s Desktop Consultant: Just-in-Time Solutions to the Top People Problems That Keep You Up at Night, says that office politics is a game of strategy where you gather resources and influence to achieve your goals.

Essex talks about aligning yourself with the company’s goals and objectives. You need to see how things get done in the office. Suss out the risks that are tolerated and take note of the short or long term results that are rewarded. This will be the framework you work within and the results you reach for in your role. You would also need to profile the powerful individuals in your office.

This can be your immediate superior, or his superior, and any number of high-ranking executives, especially the ones whose position you hope to be in one day. Observe their network and communication style. At meetings and discussions, take note of the proposals they say yes to, and the ones they turn down. With this information, harness your strengths and skills and work towards your goal. Your reputation is your calling card, so develop one that says you can get things done. This factor runs concurrently with two others, that is, knowing when to highlight your achievements, and treating others with respect. It is very important that you don’t mistreat anyone, even your subordinates, because in the world of office politics, you never know when you might end up needing someone’s support. While you’re entrenched in the deep of office politics, try not to create alliances that you cannot break free from. New management may render any particular group impotent, and it is in your best interest to be fluid and mobile when that happens. Developing great interpersonal and persuasive skills will help you circumvent this eventuality. Learn to communicate to different people and groups, and be versatile.

According to Susan Robinson, Toronto-based partner in Ernst & Young’s advisory practice, it is important to build a level of trust with staff and managers. “There was an old adage that you don’t work with your friends, but there’s a shift that’s happening. I say friendship in quotations; it’s more of a commitment to the relationship. If one can build trust with other leaders in the company, it will cascade down to the rest of the staff,” she says. As for handling subordinates, she says to engage them in practice development – giving responsibility to junior employees. “They’ll be a little more invested in the organisation and take more ownership in how the company is shifting and growing. Let employees take on something that has a bigger profile within the company. It makes people feel like the job is bigger and it’s not just punching a clock,” she says.

Jeff Mowatt, corporate trainer and author, thinks that office politics comes down to the underlying culture of the company. Employees need to feel involved in the game in order for the company to move forward. There needs to be a focus on common goals. When staff feels like it’s in the game, more time will be spent rallying around a goal, and there will be less dissent and fragmentations. “Employees will feel like they’re getting recognised and that they’re part of something larger than themselves. People take pride in ownership,” he says.

In your career, you will inevitably ask for help at various stages. Without good communication skills, your request for help may be deemed threatening and unwelcome. When someone helps you, they could think it is at their detriment. You would be labelled an opportunist. The way to avoid this is to build up goodwill, and even if it means you offering help first, then so be it. Step in when a colleague looks to be floundering, and offer to help, but be careful not to overstep your boundaries. Swooping in and stealing a project right from under someone’s nose is not the way to do it. Coming in with a few helpful suggestions is ok, as long as you make it clear that you’re merely suggesting. If your colleague offers you a place in the project, take it graciously, along with his leadership. Also, when you ask for help, be prepared to return the favour.

The trick is to not only make yourself available, but visible too. If you’re naturally reserved, you can be visible in how you dress. We don’t mean dressing provocatively or loudly. But exude a sense of confidence and style. Always have a positive look on your face. You don’t have to speak up all the time, rather speak up when it matters. Every time you walk into a meeting, do your research, and when the opportunity comes, offer your insights. Timely intervention will make people sit up and take notice. Maintain a social networking presence online as well. This provides an alternative and very effective networking tool. Edit your online profile ruthlessly. Only present the side of you that you want people to see. Don’t rant and whine, just as you won’t rant and whine in person at the office. Be warm and friendly. Let people get to know your professional persona, and your network will spread far.

Success in navigating office politics doesn’t happen overnight. A difficult colleague will not disappear just like that. Chances are he or she will be around for a while. As will the boss who refuses to promote you, and the subordinate who is disrespectful. All top executives and company owners deal with office politics on a daily basis, and people management is known as one of the toughest corporate gauntlets to get past. What you need to have is a clear plan in your head of where you want to go. From there, plan each one of your steps. Break it down to achievable goals. For example, if you have an abrasive team player, see if there’s any way you can get him or her on your side. Always pave the way for reconciliation first. If that doesn’t work, look at getting transferred to another team. Keep working at it, with your end goal in mind. This is where persuasiveness, visibility, integrity and a good track record comes in handy. With all these tools in your hand, work your way up the ladder. The last thing you should know is that you have to be prepared to move on. Ask yourself if the culture of the company coincides with your personal values. If fairness and transparency exist, and you know you will get ahead despite obstacles, then dig your heels in and fight. However, if you’re in a place that encourages and fosters unethical behaviour, ruthless methods and dishonesty, and it doesn’t agree with your beliefs, then it’s time to move on. That fight is not worth winning.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

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