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Got office sharks? Here’s how to outswim them

5 min read


You know the scenario: You’re presenting an important proposal to your company’s executive team when you realize the theme from “Jaws” is buzzing in your head. Somehow, the office shark has done it again. He has managed to both put down your idea — in front of your colleagues, no less — and get the other lesser sharks to swim along with him. Face it: You’re in the wrong aquarium.

Are you afraid of becoming fish fodder? Sometime the playing field just isn’t level. Here are my 8 favorite tactics to leverage networking, gain access to information, attract opportunities and outswim the office sharks:

Cultivate relationships: 
Don’t try to navigate potentially shark-infested waters alone. We’re all in the relationship business these days. My former boss shared his secret with me: When you join an organization, some people will be in your camp from the start. Some will never be on your side, and the rest will be on the fence. Your job is to convert the fence-sitters and build rapport. For example, while you may be inclined to work your way through lunch, occasionally lunching with your co-workers creates bonding that may pay off later. Think of it like a wheel: your relationships with team members, supervisors and company leaders are each a spoke in that wheel; it’s up to you to learn how to build those relationships so that everyone comes out ahead.

Understand the corporate culture: Since corporate culture is the silken thread that weaves itself throughout an organization, understanding what behaviors and management styles are not only present but rewarded is essential to achieving success in office politics. It’s crucial to look up the ladder for cues on which behaviors are accepted. If your boss is typically an early bird and you arrive only after you’ve had your second cafe latte, you’re likely to miss out on some valuable and perhaps informal chat time. Conversely, if those in power routinely work well after 5 p.m. and you’re an early bird, the chance for strategic interaction may pass you by.

Learn the informal power structure: Who really gets things done in the organization? Most companies have an organization chart, but the real power often lies with someone outside the formal chain of command who can persuade and influence the powers that be. When you interview for a job, take note of the people you are not meeting with — are their doors open, do they seem collaborative? Building rapport with those behind the scenes can help you gain access to senior management and allow you to communicate your ideas and successes to the right people.

Confide carefully: As mom used to say, it really isn’t necessary to tell everyone what you’re thinking. In today’s social media-savvy world, it’s all too easy to share everything — sometimes, unfortunately. Don’t wait until there’s blood in the water. Learn to keep your mouth shut, figure out who you can trust and, remember, less is often more. As the saying goes, keep your friends close and your enemies even closer.

Practice observation: Two things are important here. First- listen, don’t talk. You’re less likely to say something dumb if you’ve had a chance to think about it first. The old adage “silence is golden” rings true here. Second, remember the fine art of conversation, and ask a few questions. People love to talk about their ideas and what they want to do. More importantly, asking questions will encourage people to illuminate their positions, giving you insight as to what their plans are. And while you’re busy observing, take care not to react to situations immediately. Keep your cool when conflict arises. Although it might be tempting to dash off a scathing e-mail to your colleague the shark, just skip it — you may not win the war.

Assume nothing: It can be foolhardy to assume that everyone has your best interests at heart, even your boss. If you’re lucky, you’ll work for someone who will help you navigate office politics. In many organizations, you’re only as good as your last success, so it’s important to keep your face in front of those who count.

Go with your gut: Develop an early-warning system. Consider that you may need to position your ideas differently to reach different people in the organization, and remember the value of reciprocity. It’s also important to give credit where credit is due. This is when the relationships you’ve been cultivating will begin to pay off and allow you to expand your influence.

Know when to get out of the boat: If you’re prepared, your antenna will go up before the sharks start circling. Say you start noticing that your boss isn’t supporting your ideas or consistently leaves you out of the loop on major projects. If you’ve successfully cultivated relationships within the organization, your well-chosen allies will tell you what’s really going on. If the company culture isn’t a fit, your best tactic may be to set your sights elsewhere.

Shannon Alter is president of Alter Consulting Group where she offers strategic organizational assessments, training and leadership workshops. Be sure to join the discussion on Alter’s blog at Connect with Alter Consulting Group at LinkedIn.

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