“Office politics” often gets a bad rap. It’s thought of as the domain of catty gossip, shady backroom deals or sycophantic compliments reminiscent of the movies “Office Space” or “9 to 5.”
Thankfully, in real-life, office politics is often much tamer — and also unavoidable for anyone with the ambition to advance.
Why? Because, at its core, office politics is about relationships with colleagues and decision-makers. And nurturing those relationships can go a long way toward advancing your career goals.
What is office politics?
While politics is often derided as purely a popularity contest, there are actually two components — being popular and getting things done.
Let’s think about “real” politics for a moment. You can be very good at getting things done, but if you’re unpopular, you’re not going to be elected in the first place. On the other hand, if you get elected because you’re popular, but fail to accomplish anything, you’ll probably find yourself voted out in the next election.
In office politics, exactly as in “real” politics, you can often get small things done without the support of others. But the more impactful your goals, the more you need to get other people on board to make them happen.
Liked + Trusted + Respected = Influence
To have influence, colleagues need to like you, trust you and respect you.
If you’re not liked, well, that’s pretty much curtains for influencing decisions, unless you’re already the boss. It’s worth noting that to be liked, you must first be known.
If you’re liked, but not respected, you might be involved the discussion, but your view won’t carry any weight. We could call this “Charlie Brown syndrome” after the classic Peanuts character.
If you’re respected but not trusted (think of a well-qualified politician whose agenda you dislike), you may be consulted on an issue but colleagues may have misgivings about your motives.
To influence behavior and decisions in the office requires all three. Liked + Trusted + Respected = Influence.
Can office politics drive value?
Everything we do at CareerPoint is based on our philosophy that career success is driven by the value you create for your employer.
We talk about value creation by referencing eight drivers of value. You could think of these as the atomic elements of employee value. It’s a framework you could use to analyze almost anything in relation to HR or career advancement. Why? Because anything that affects your value as an employee influences both the success of your career and the success of your company.
What we know as “office politics” touches on several of these value drivers, but let’s focus on just two: Relationships and positioning.
Of all the categories of relationships that drive value for a company, none are more significant than customer relationships. If customers like, respect and trust you, they are more likely to highly value your services, keep buying them and recommend them to others. They’re also likely to be patient with you when things go awry, as things inevitably do.
The value of customer relationships can be tremendous and long-lasting. In a law firm, a single relationship can be worth tens of millions of dollars. Relationships are so important that when a partner moves from one firm to another, they often take the relationships with them. In fact, it’s hard to think of an industry where good customer relationships can’t move the dial on company success.
This means good customer relationships are a source of influence for employees. If customers highly regard you, the business won’t want to lose you and ought to value your opinion. If, on the other hand, no customer would notice or care if you left, your influence on decisions and events will be more limited.
Positioning yourself for advancement
The value driver most closely aligned with office politics is the one we’ve named Positioning. It’s all about navigating office politics to position yourself for advancement. After all, you could be the hardest working and most valuable employee in the business but fail to secure advancement if you don’t understand the politics.
The best way to think about this is to imagine a meeting of your company’s management team. Your potential promotion is being discussed. What do you want everyone to say and do?
Obviously, you want everyone to say that you are the best choice for the role. But will they?
There’s nothing you can do at this moment. It’s too late to influence any further.
In some ways, the discussion is a culmination of everything you’ve said and done since you’ve joined the company. The decision will be made largely on how the participants feel about you and the idea of you in a new, more influential role.
This is no idle abstraction. This is exactly how most advancement decisions are made. If you want to advance, the advocacy of every person around the table is what you’re solving for in the game of office politics.
5 tips for becoming an effective office politician
Here are five quick tips you can use to help build trust, respect and likeability in your workplace.
- Get involved with projects and initiatives outside of your team and department whenever possible. This will help you begin to widen your network.
- Avoid overusing email with new connections. It’s impossible to establish a relationship over email. Use the phone or arrange a quick Zoom/Teams/Webex meeting.
- Aim to impress every single new person you work with, both inside and outside the organization. First impressions count and impressing people is often easier than you think. Just be reliable, responsive and helpful. Do things faster or better than they expect.
- You don’t build influence by being a weathervane who simply goes along with everything, but you don’t build influence by opposing everything, either. The middle course is to articulate your position clearly, call the pros and cons as you see them, accept that others will see it differently and get on board with decisions you don’t agree with.
- Do favors for people when it helps them without expecting anything in return. If you are generous by nature, you will build a network of influence and appreciation, and you’ll be seen as a team player. This network will help you get things done down the line.
Remember, no matter how much you hate it, office politics is a part of office life we all have to contend with. Instead of avoiding it, put your best foot forward, take smart risks, make mistakes, and learn from them.
To find out how CareerPoint can help you and your team navigate office politics and create the win/win relationships you need to succeed, visit CareerPoint’s website today.
Originally from the west coast of Scotland, Steve McIntosh is a recovering accountant (ICAEW), HR professional (GPHR) and MBA (University of Oxford). After starting his career with global accounting firm KPMG in 1998, Steve founded offshore financial services recruitment firm CML in 2004, which he led as CEO for 16 years.
In 2020, he founded CareerPoint.com, the virtual coaching platform that helps companies and their people get ahead of the curve. With customers and coaches in more than 30 countries around the world, CareerPoint is well on its way to achieving its twofold mission to help a million young people advance in their careers and level the playing field for underrepresented groups.
McIntosh is a “zealous convert” to the value of HR as a driver of business value and the author of “The Employee Value Curve: the unifying theory of HR and career advancement helping companies and their people succeed together.“