Mastering the Art of Office Politics

Swim in Office Politics Without Getting Stuck

by Selena Rezvani



When the topic of office politics comes up, I’m accustomed to hearing moans and groans from leadership workshop participants. “I want to stay above the politics” many of them remark. Others ask with exasperation, “Why sully my own reputation by promoting everyday pettiness or agendas?”

Disheartening as it may be, you seriously disadvantage yourself professionally by trying to side step office politics altogether. Therein lies the point of this two-part post: to help you first learn what the politics are at your job, and to subsequently maneuver through them successfully.

I’ve come to think of politics?and culture?for that matter, as the personality of an organization. It’s up to each of us to learn our environment, figuring out if it’s conservative or casual, hierarchical or flat, open to new ideas or fairly closed. While interviewing Cynthia Egan, President at T. Rowe Price, she reiterated the idea that every corporate personality differs, and that it’s our job to find out what that personality is and to decide if we want to exist in it. Egan also pointed out, “…People just entering the workforce can be naïve about the extent that politics control decisions.” Beyond basic awareness, we can do ourselves a service by asking questions that get to the heart of how the company functions, including:

  • How candidly do people speak? How relaxed or conservative is the environment?
  • How do people stay informed about organizational updates? What’s the standard protocol for getting and giving information?
  • Can people ask questions freely? Can people disagree publicly with a decision or direction?
  • What nonverbal cues do people use to convey information?
  • How do people dress? How else do people present themselves?
  • How is my boss seen by the company? What is my boss’s reputation within the company?
  • How is my department seen? Is it well established or new? What is my department’s reputation within the overall company?

Proactively asking and answering these questions can give you an immediate leg up. Rather than just focusing on your individual performance, you’ll have an enterprise wide view of what’s valued. Ever wonder why one person’s ideas are always embraced, while someone else’s continually get shot down? Most likely, the person getting recognition understands the inner-workings of the environment?including what’s rewarded and how people like to be communicated with?and packages his or her messages accordingly.

The modern workplace is full of unwritten rules, often unspoken, that range from the seemingly small and ridiculous (i.e. casual Fridays are offered, but it’s still frowned up to wear jeans) to the more weighty and significant (those who log the most face time tend to get promoted). To navigate every workplace culture with the same exact mindset can end in disaster. Instead, keep your ear to the ground?not so that you can become a mindless sheep or automaton?but so you can tailor your pitch, calibrate your performance, and dial up or down your communication as needed. Keep investigating what you observe around you and be sure to come by next week to find out how you can maneuver through politics with savvy.

In my last post, we looked at how you can become aware of the politics that exist at your workplace.  I offered up questions–much like an external consultant would ask–to help you quickly understand your surroundings.  This week, I want to move past awareness to help you build more social and relational capital.  Below you’ll find a mix of strategies employable in just about any industry or function:

Employ Internal Customer Service:

Taking an internal customer service approach is one of the best ways to build your personal brand and to fortify yourself to better handle politics in the future.  This means serving those in your organization just as you would your best customer, without regard to title, rank, or hierarchy.  In gaining a reputation for delivering strong results with a great attitude, it’ll be hard for people not to get word of it.
You’ll gain friends and allies at work, translating to more people who will support you and your projects.  Remember, many of those whom you serve will have more power or influence than you do. By showing them that you are smart, considerate, and approachable, you’ll make them want to advocate for your success in the future.

Distinguish Good vs. Bad Gossip:

As you make sense of the workplace politics around you, you’ll need to distinguish when you’re gathering critical information versus gossiping.  Gossip, generally speaking, is the trivial workplace talk that spreads sensational or intimate matters around the office. In interviewing Denise Incandela, President at Saks Fifth Avenue for my book, she recommended, “Don’t get involved in negativity or gossip–to me that just embodies professional immaturity.”  Discretion at work matters because leaders have to keep all kinds of data and information confidential throughout the course of their jobs.  What’s more, gossiping is an easy way to cut other women down and lose respect from men.  
On the other hand, as you move up, you’ll likely need to seek out information to stay informed.  You might ask a trusted peer or subordinate, “What’s your sense about how people are feeling given the news of the merger?” or “How do you think it’s going for people as they get used to the new sales software?” Expressing genuine interest is reflective of an inclusive approach-where you involve and value a cross section of people’s perceptions and experiences. 

Find “Culture Guides”:

In adapting to a new workplace, there’s no reason to start from scratch, going it alone.  Strategically meet and become known by a broad spectrum of people who are more seasoned, more tenured or more experienced than you.  Be sure that you take the research of McKinsey into account, which tells us that men more often build broad, shallow networks whereas women have narrower, deep networks, mainly composed of friends. 
Broader networks are considered more essential for career advancement and provide a wider range of services to call upon.  Create a personal board of directors, composed of those in and out of the organization, that can help you with different specialties.  As Vicki Ho, Director of Strategic Planning for Coca-Cola‘s Pacific group urged, “Create a network where you become known by people other than your boss. This group can eventually vouch for you.”

Bring it Back to the Business:

Many of us can get caught in the middle of ego-fueled battles and personal agendas.  Whose side will you take?  The correct answer is neither!  Be the one to ask good questions, bringing it back the business or the overarching objective at hand.  You might propose:

  • How is this adding value to the business?
  • What are the potential ripple effects of…?
  • What is keeping us from coming to an agreement?
  • How does this activity fit in with our larger industry?
  • Is this project to our collective benefit?
  • How can we best move forward?
  • What is the cost of us not pursuing this?
  • How can we make this work for all of us?

There’s no shortage of good strategies for navigating politics.  The biggest risk we take however is closing our eyes and pretending we don’t need to be aware of the political undercurrents at work. 

Offer up your own best practices here and let me know how these serve you.

nullSelena Rezvani is a recognized author, speaker, and consultant on women and leadership. She is co-president of Women’s RoadmapTM, a consulting firm whose goal is to propel more women into leadership positions and to help companies position an inclusive workplace as a competitive advantage.

Rezvani established Women’s RoadmapTM while writing her debut book, “The Next Generation of Women Leaders: What You Need to Lead but Won’t Learn in Business School” (Praeger, 2009), and after identifying the need for Generation X and Y women to be seen as a viable talent pool and leadership pipeline. She is a regular commentator on NPR’s nationally syndicated 51 Percent and writes a women and leadership column for The Washington Post. null

Rezvani’s professional speaking credits include the following organizations, among many others: Harvard University, Comcast, Northrop Grumman, Princeton University, Duke University, the Clinton Foundation and the Forté Foundation Conference.

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