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How can office politics work for you instead of against you?

Unlike elections, we live with office politics 365 days a years. Here's a guide to making it work for you.

7 min read


How can office politics work for you instead of against you?

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We’ll soon know who will be president in 2021, whether tonight or another day, and we’ll have to move on with our life’s work. Elections are brutally zero-sum affairs: Someone wins, and the other candidates lose.

Electoral outcomes literally change countries and societies, so it’s understandable that we obsess over them. One downside to this, as I’ve written about here before, is that people start to think everything is a zero-sum game, which is not how life works.

Yes, many moments in life and business are win-lose situations. But the totality of our careers and personal lives are rarely zero-sum outcomes. Yes, a company might succeed or fail because it defeats a competitor, but few industries have but one player. Yes, only one person can be the CEO (with some exceptions), but there are many titles and roles for workers, just as there are many career paths available. Yes, you might suffer a failed relationship, but friendship isn’t a zero-sum game and soulmate is not a literal, genetic designation.

Even sports teams, which exist to compete in winner-take-all championships, gain a great deal from performing well even when they don’t win the title. As I wrote last year about the World Series, the Ricky Bobby philosophy of “If you ain’t first, you’re last” is short-sighted and deflating. This lesson should apply to our businesses, our teams, our careers and our personal lives.

And that brings me to a tricky subject, an area where a zero-sum mentality can take you far: office politics. That awful, persistent mixture of intrigue, gossip and deceit — and also networking and relationships and teamwork.

We all know people who have played the game — perhaps too well. These folks court favor rather than friendship, they aren’t particularly excellent, yet they keep moving up and taking on more responsibility. Or they spend their time placating or manipulating the boss instead of serving employees, customers and the business. Or they’re just a jerk!

Similarly, we all know people who suffer because they refuse to engage in anything resembling office politics — or they mistakenly conflate “play politics” with “be decent to people.”

We can’t avoid office politics if we want to work with people. It’s that simple. At the same time, you might not want to spend your days obsessing about your co-workers and the latest rumors.

In short, how do you acknowledge that “office politics” is simply the act of working with other people without subsuming yourself in palace intrigue?

Fortunately, I don’t have to reinvent the wheel. SmartBrief on Leadership has hosted many smart articles on office politics over the years. Here are some of the lessons.

Change requires allies

Power comes in many forms: money, fame, competence, resources, leverage. But the one form that might be most important within organizations is influence. If you want to incite change in your organization, you need to be able to influence and win over people. Yes, we’ve known that since Dale Carnegie made his name selling it, and it’s still true today.

Some people, in some situations, can win support through intimidation, threats or bullying. Some people can dazzle others with fame, maybe even win them over with money (legally or otherwise). But those tactics only work so well. Instead, as Art Petty wrote in February:

The work of socializing ideas is important in every culture I’ve encountered. While some may suggest the pre-meeting lobbying reeks of politics, I describe it as strategic relationship building. Your goal is never to manipulate but rather to gain insights into the other party’s perspective and needs for the new initiative. You need and want their help. However, you want the initiative to benefit them as well.

Understand yourself

Bonnie Marcus literally wrote the book on the politics of promotion, and she shared in 2015 how a failure to distinguish between office savvy and office politics can hurt your career.

What’s the difference between politicking and being your best self? Understanding what that best self is:

In order to promote yourself well, first take the time to understand your value proposition; the unique way you deliver the work for successful business outcomes. Your value proposition gives you confidence to communicate your achievements. It enables you to see the direct relationship between your work and specific business results

Read the room

While knowing thyself is helpful, the art of observation remains an essential outward-facing activity. As Marcus separately wrote last year, people need to understand what’s going on around them, and then figure out how they can deploy that information strategically to themselves and others.

Conducting this observation helps us move forward, but it’s also a defensive strategy: 

We also need to develop a radar system to understand potential roadblocks and danger. This radar comes from a keen understanding of the people and culture of the organization. This radar system comes from the knowledge that can only be obtained from the inner circles within the workplace that both influence and make the rules of the game.

Solve problems and make it about the team

Petty agrees that office politics is inevitable, and he advocates two simultaneous tracks for people looking to access workplace power: building it yourself or tapping into available networks of power

But another angle Petty proposes is, essentially, a way to positively play office politics by solving in-between problems — what Petty calls “the gray zone.” When done well, you’ll address thorny challenges, gain notice for your expertise and be known for your generosity. As he described a product manager’s successful ascent:

She learned to identify issues getting in the way of progress or creating extra burden, and then bring the right people to bear to solve the problems. And, when she and the team were successful in eliminating a problem, she brilliantly turned the spotlight of visibility and accolades on her team members. 

Know the value of endurance and goodwill

Not every situation or workplace can avoid toxic office politics. Maybe you’re the problem, or maybe you’re the victim of an unfair situation, difficult circumstances or just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It’s easy for me to say “Hang in there!” even as I know the days can feel endless and stressful. And you can’t — and shouldn’t — try to do it all yourself. But the effort to be constructive and positive can serve you in the long run, as Made Brand Management CEO Dustin White wrote in 2018:

Assuming positive intent will also make your relationships with your employees in the office more productive. To do this, choose to interpret errors, comments and feedback as mistakes — not coming from a malicious place. This approach will help you keep a level head and bring out the best in every employee.

Another way to talk about “positive intent” is “goodwill,” as Steve McKee wrote in 2017. How does goodwill play out in real life?

if you have a problem with a colleague, you have the responsibility to give them the benefit of the doubt and address the issue directly, privately and respectfully. If that doesn’t work you can move it up the chain, but that happens infrequently.

Office politics is a part of life, just like elections. But the office doesn’t have to be a nasty and binary place. These lessons take time to learn and apply, and you might need to relearn them many times over. Hopefully, these articles can help you navigate office politics more smoothly and successfully.


James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and blog content. Contact him at @James_daSilva or by email.

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