Navigating Office Politics the Smart Way

A top view look at a team of working people around a wood table

Like it or not, we’re all a part of office politics.

Managing different personalities can be challenging, but it doesn’t have to be a drain on your work day or always be a bad experience. Navigating them the smart way means understanding exactly what qualifies as office politics (and what doesn’t) so that you can find ways to work effectively.

“Despite all the negative connotations, office politics are not inherently evil. They are about two things: influence and relationships, and the power these two things give you — or don’t,” writes Niven Postma, a business leader and author of the book If You Don’t Do Politics, Politics Will Do You

What is office politics? Marie G. McIntyre, a career coach, organizational psychologist, and author puts it simply: “Being smart about how you manage the relationships at work.” 

For people in toxic environments, that definition might feel entirely different than for somebody in a supportive workplace. But even if you’re happy in your job, you can still use a better understanding of office politics to do stronger work and be more successful.

Getting to know your colleagues, building relationships and understanding the team can be extremely beneficial for everybody. 

Doing it the right way, however, is pivotal. Otherwise, you and your coworkers run the risk of sacrificing productivity and overall general satisfaction in the workplace. 

Kathleen Kelley Reardon, an expert on organizational politics who wrote a book on office politics, says people typically fall into one of four categories when it comes to office politics: 

  1. The purist: These people dislike the thought of office politics and only want to do the work. 
  2. The street fighter: These people are rough and may try to get ahead at the expense of others. 
  3. The team player: They work well with others and want to advance group goals. 
  4. The maneuverer: They are skillful and unobtrusive when it comes to office politics and getting ahead. 

Knowing which category tend to fall into will help you hone your approach - and knowing what types you work with can also help you understand and communicate with your coworkers.

Acting in ways that can minimize friction and build understanding works for everybody - and that is at the heart of healthy office politics.

The problem with avoiding politics 

Are you the kind of person who tries to avoid office politics altogether? Some of us just want to do the work and steer clear of politics at all costs, but that can actually end up being more harmful to your career than helpful. 

The reality is that even if you keep your nose on the grindstone and produce a really great product, it might not be enough to get you ahead.

Carla Harris, vice chairman at Morgan Stanley, puts it in perspective by saying, “You can’t let your work speak for you; work doesn’t speak.” 

You have to know exactly who your client or audience is in your work (even if you have a job where that doesn’t really seem relevant). Your managers will see your work, but they also want to see that you’re a valuable part of the team.

Do you get along with others? Are you willing to step in when needed? Do you contribute ideas? These are all things that likely go above and beyond your daily work, but can make a world of difference when it comes to making moves. 

Similarly, building good relationships within your organization means that others will be willing to step in and help you when needed. Even if you put out stellar work, it’s hard to ask for help when you have no meaningful link to others.

Improve ethics with politics (yes, really!)

If you want to make a change, you’re going to have to pay attention to the politics. 

Kent Lineback, one of the authors of "Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader," said it was this misunderstanding about the workplace that put him behind early in his career. 

By avoiding relationships and keeping to himself, he says he essentially gave up his power, which can be a really important form of currency in an office.

“The lack of power corrupts,” he says. “If you don’t have power, then you can’t stand up for what you believe is right. How many people have we seen in history who have said, ‘they made me do it, I had no power’?”

His writing partner, Linda Hill, says this is particularly important for people who want to be leaders. While you may try to avoid politics to appear fair, you end up becoming blind to interoffice conflicts, which are bound to happen even on the best of teams. 

“Unless you pay attention…and learn to use them constructively, you will actually find yourself being powerless,” she told the Harvard Business Review.  

So, how do you balance politics and ethics? 

Keep in mind what McIntyre, the career coach, says is the golden rule: “You should never advance your own interests by hurting the business or harming other people.”

By keeping this the priority, you open up new avenues and opportunities for communication and collaboration. Remember that even if your work is more independent in nature, you still need others to accomplish big goals. Whether it be earning new clients, taking on new jobs or even just getting a proposal in front of a manager, you might have more success if you use the politics, and do it smartly, to your advantage. 

McIntyre advises that people be keenly aware of their leverage, as this is often a downfall for most people navigating politics. 

In the end, politics are unavoidable, but psychologists, business leaders, and career coaches agree that it doesn’t always have to be negative, feel icky or result in hurting others. Building relationships can open a lot of doors for you and your team. Be genuine about your goals and you’ll end up going a lot further.

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