Play the office politics game … and win
Just about everybody who has collected a paycheck can recognise the different types of “office politicians”.
The gossipmonger spreads rumours in a misguided effort to build alliances by tearing down other people. The flatterer tries to make friends with insincere compliments, frequently directed at the boss. The credit stealer tries to claim responsibility for successful projects that were completed by others.
Although those are personalities and behaviours some might want to avoid in the office, some experts say playing the office politics game the right way is essential to workplace success. They describe office politics as building relationships with people to create momentum for your projects and advance your career.
Executive career coach Beth Weissenberger said politicking should be treated as a business strategy along with making budget, meeting sales targets and delivering on time. She said employees who quietly do a good job without building relationships are making a mistake.
The silent, disconnected masses
Two surveys done by staffing firm Robert Half show that workers tend to shun office politics. In survey results released August 23rd, 39% of more than 700 North American workers said they do not participate in office politics. Results released in February show that 42% of more than 400 US office workers surveyed believe involvement in office politics is not at all necessary to get ahead in one’s career.
Those workers are missing out on opportunities, according to Franke James, author of the 2009 book Dear Office-Politics: The Game Everyone Plays.
“Office politics is everywhere,” James said. “It crosses all cultures, and it respects no boundaries. …
Office politics gets under everyone’s skin. You can’t escape it, but you have to learn to deal with it.”
James said workers must be ethical and have the company’s best interests at heart when engaging in office politics. And it is important to differentiate between acceptable office politics behaviours and gossip.
Weissenberger and James identify office politics as the building of relationships that help employees accomplish their objectives and advance in their careers. Those relationships can and should be built without participating in gossip or spreading innuendo about other people, according to the experts. Yet the Robert Half survey results released in August show that 54% of workers who identified office politics in their workplace said gossip or spreading rumours is the most common form of office politics they observe.
Weissenberger, co-founder and vice chairman of The Handel Group, a New York corporate consulting and private executive coaching company, calls gossip “a crime” and warns the executives she coaches not to engage in it, even as a passive listener. James said taking part in gossip subverts the objectives of workers who think they are building allegiances by doing it.
“By engaging in gossip, you actually are undermining your own credibility and trust, because most people … in the back of their mind, they’re thinking, ‘If she’s saying that about someone else, what’s she saying about me behind my back?’ ” James said.
Other forms of office politics cited as common in the Robert Half survey include flattering the boss and taking credit for other people’s work. But Weissenberger said workers who participate in the right kind of office politics can and do get ahead.
Doing it right
The workplace cafeteria provides ample evidence of workers’ reluctance to build relationships, according to Weissenberger. She said workers tend to sit with the same friends at the same table every day without ever daring to speak to the power brokers at the adjacent table who could help advance their career.
“Fear of God comes into people’s eyes when you say, ‘You actually have to go say “hello” and meet people,’ ” Weissenberger said. “That’s the last thing on their list. They would rather just get their job done.”
Weissenberger provided the following tips for successful relationship building:
List the important people inside and outside of your company who you need to know to advance your career. Introduce yourself to them and meet with them. Lunch provides an excellent opportunity for this.
If there is a lunchroom or cafeteria at work, sit at a different table with different people three times a week.
Take a genuine interest in the people you meet. Ask them where they went to school and how they got their job, and show them that you care about them.
When meeting with somebody with a position that’s significantly more prestigious than yours, ask him or her to mentor you.
When power brokers get to know you, Weissenberger said, they will be likely to mention you when they are discussing opportunities for important projects and promotions. She also said it is essential to inform your boss if you are interested in being promoted.
Weissenberger said the lack of a promotion is what leads clients to her door. “They can’t understand why they haven’t been promoted,” she said. “One of the first things I say is, ‘Does your boss know you want to be promoted?’ [They say], ‘Oh, no. No. I’m doing my job. I’m getting my job done. I’m getting great reviews.’ ”
Weissenberger said that is not enough. And she said engaging in the right kind of office politics – though it might seem difficult – is the way to get ahead.
The dynamics of successful politics are much different in the C-suite than in other levels of an organisation.
For starters, the C-suite often is populated by managers who enjoy being in control and who rose to their positions partly because of their ambition or assertiveness, according to Marie McIntyre, Ph.D., author of Secrets to Winning at Office Politics.
This can lead to a lack of collaboration as well as power struggles that often perplex the CEO and don’t contribute to accomplishment of business objectives, McIntyre said. She advises C-suite managers who are not in CEO roles to think like the CEO. That means considering how your function can work with other departments to make the whole organisation successful, rather than focusing just on the needs of your own function.
CFOs, in particular, need to collaborate because they are closely involved with every other department in a company. McIntyre said CFOs need to ask other department heads if the budgetary process is effective, if there is financial information they need, and if the financial reports are easy to read and understand.
“You need to fulfill your monitoring function,” she said. “But you also need to fulfill your consultative function and your support function. And I think that’s really the key to working with peers, is to balance those out.”
C-suite executives also often tend to be isolated from other employees, according to McIntyre, unless they put mechanisms in place to produce feedback and build relationships. These can include:
Regular meetings with direct reports and “skip-level” meetings with employees managed by your direct reports.
Periodic departmental gatherings where employees on all levels can provide input and ask questions.
Employee surveys that provide opportunities for written comments as well as check-the-box answers. Asking the same set of questions periodically gives an opportunity to gauge improvement or deterioration in the responses.
For those who are not in a CEO role, asking the CEO regularly for feedback on what you and your department are doing well and what you can do better.
—Ken Tysiac (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.