In Pursuit of Profession: Chess not checkers


The lying. The backstabbing. All the drama. No, I’m not talking about our recent bare-knuckled brawl of a presidential campaign. I’m talking about office politics. If you feel like you’re stuck in a toxic workplace that’s mired in corrosive office politics, you’re not alone. A recent Robert Half staffing firm survey stated that 54 percent of office workers engage in gossip, 20 percent try to gain favor by flattering their boss, and 17 percent take credit for other people’s work. So is there a way around office politics, to simply keep your nose to the grindstone and just do your work? The short answer is no; the longer answer is that office politics is a part of any workplace and a game that must be played. According to that same Half survey, 62 percent of workers said that they must be involved in office politics to get ahead at their job and in their career. But before we can navigate the minefield that is office politics, it’s best to try and understand it a little better.

Playing workplace poker

First, we need to get past the idea of office politics as a bad thing. “If you have more than two people working together in an office, then you’ll have politics. Trying to avoid it is like trying to avoid air,” said Marie G. McIntyre, Ph.D., career counselor, and author of Secrets to Winning at Office Politics. “Lots of people do things to go against their own self-interest. They don’t understand how office politics works. It’s just about managing relationships and functioning in a power hierarchy to achieve your work goals.”

To achieve our goal of being more successful in terms of office politics means to first manage our own expectations when it comes to our workplace experience. For McIntyre, it comes down to the fact that most offices are like that great American experiment…a melting pot. “Workplaces mesh a lot of different people together with different work styles, personalities, and responsibilities into one end goal for the organization. And when you have all those people with all those personalities, you’re going to have conflicts,” said McIntyre. The trick is that you’ve always got to be cognizant of your career goals and how they gel with the organization’s goals. “There’s a golden rule of office politics,” McIntyre said. “If you’re not hurting others or the business, then whatever you’re doing is ok. Never advance your own goals for the cost of the good of the organization.”

We’ve also got to remember that our career campaign in office politics begins even before our time working in that office. “Job interviews are a bit of a game, there’s this back and forth from the manager wanting to get a feel for the real person rather the best image of that person and the applicant who is trying to get a feel for the office from this one person trying to put the best face on their organization,” McIntyre said.

So what if you’ve chosen the high road, to live by the golden rule, but others in your office aren’t doing the same? I would tell you what I tell my kids: you can’t control what other people do; you can only control what you do. Now sit there and eat your broccoli or you’ll have it for breakfast! Fortunately for us, McIntyre has a more specific answer that doesn’t involve eating our vegetables. It’s all about becoming more politically intelligent, which starts with three simple words.

Pleasant, cooperative and helpful

“You don’t get to pick your colleagues, but that doesn’t matter. Trying to like them is good and might make your day better, but you don’t have to like them,” said McIntyre. Instead, focus on three things. “Being pleasant, cooperative, and helpful are the three watchwords for being politically intelligent when working with coworkers.”

Being politically intelligent also means that it will behoove us to hide our emotions sometimes. We’re there to do a job with other people that we may otherwise not want to hang out with. We will have problems with a few of them. For McIntyre, choosing your battles is definitely the way to go. “Separate out the business problems versus personal feelings. Jokes they tell or what they wear is not a business problem. But if they aren’t getting you information you need to keep your project running on time is a business problem. If you go to human resources (HR), just focus on the business problems. They’ll think you’re a whiner if you just talk about the personal issues,” said McIntyre.

Managing our managers

Perhaps the relationship that can either suffer the worst or thrive the best in the office politics game is the employee/manager relationship. Again, McIntyre had some helpful insight that can help us think about this relationship a little differently, therefore making us more successful with it. “Many of us expect our boss to be the perfect boss for us. We forget that bosses are just people. It’s part of your job to make your relationship with your boss work,” said McIntyre. She also had some questions that we need to ask ourselves in terms of managing this relationship, especially if you think you have a bad boss. “What is my boss’s work style? What’s his or her operating system? How do I meet their expectations? How do I communicate with them? How do I manage my emotions? If you feel that they’re a bad boss, do most people that they work with find them difficult? Or is it just you? You may not respect them, but you have to respect the position. Managers are very in tune to employees that disrespect the position,” said McIntyre.