If one thing people complain about a lot, that would be office politics. People talk about it as something evil, something that holds them back in life and torments them.
Millions are suffering from office politics. One-third of office going Brits claim that they are unhappy in life mainly because of office politics. They dread going to the office, found a survey in 2015. In another survey, 53% said they reluctantly “play” office politics, as if it is a game.
What is so frustrating about office politics?
I will tell you a secret. But for that let me take you back to a law firm office party that I remember from my ‘big law associate’ time.
I realised that there are these power structures and cliques within the organization. You cannot just get ahead with merit and performance. Nobody really cares. It would take years and years of being a minion to some powerful people to reach the big table, if it really exists and if you really ever do stick long enough.
I had an epiphany, at that office party, well past midnight, in a big, glass structure hotel. People were drunk, and their best and their worst was on display.
As I sat on some sort of a structure, looking at the merry making and sipping away at my drink, watching the whole politics unfolding right there in front of me like a surreal scene, I decided to opt out and build my own organization.
I thought it will be easier to do so rather than work through that politics.
It has been almost a decade since. I do have my own fledgeling organization. We are best at what we do and hundreds of people have joined us and while most of them left, about 3 dozen people work with us.
After all this time, I realised, you can’t really avoid office politics. Even in my own organization, there are human beings working. Until the day we can replace all human workers with AI or something, there will always be office politics. I have learnt it over the years that there is no escaping it.
First, let us understand what office politics is. Here are some observations:
Office politics is about power centres
There are people who have power. They have a relationship with other powerful people. Together, they can control what happens within an organization. They can shape your reputation within the organization, they can influence who gets what responsibility and they can even sideline you if they do not like you.
These people forming power centres and their control over outcome and opportunities is at the heart of office politics.
Sometimes, they accept new people into their network. However, this is rather rare and the whole thing works due to exclusionary approach. If everyone was part of such a clique, it won’t serve any purpose after all.
Office politics is above rules, performance and logic – it is about relationships and loyalty
According to you, you are the better candidate to be promoted or generally be given more importance to. Unfortunately, your colleague who smiles at the boss all the time has 20 points lower IQ than you and is very unkind to juniors seems to get more important than you do.
She seems to be part of groups that exclude you. She seems to have access to information about the organization that you do not have access to. She gets invited to events where you are not called. She gets opportunities that you do not even hear about at first.
For women, they could find different kind of issues. There are so many old boys clubs where women are not invited.
Of course, you rightly chalk it up to office politics. You are smarter, you work harder, you have better blah blah but still, someone else gets more importance. What is that? Horrible office politics.
That **** is doing something dirty and unfair to deny you the opportunities.
Tell me if this is not what office politics is all about for most people.
Our assumption is that in a fair world the most qualified people should get promotions and opportunities. In real life, that rarely happens. It is not that skills and knowledge have no value, it is not that performance is ignored. But above all, most human beings dearly value loyalty, friendship and relationships based on trust.
Your boss is most likely to give a bigger bonus to the person in his team who is most trustworthy and loyal in his experience, and not the ones who are most brilliant or do the most work. That may seem unfair, but understanding it is the key to office politics.
Office politics means unwritten rules
There are unwritten rules in every work place. It is well known that certain companies prefer people from certain castes, gender or even region. There are Parsi or Marwari companies in India, which grew very big and spread across many parts of the world, but preferred to promote only people from their own community.
Such practices are less acceptable these days, but can be quite common. Recently we read in news about a law firm that hires only women lawyers. I think that is absolutely fine. However, there are other places where there are unwritten rules about whether men or women are preferred for promotions. In quite a few large law firms, women lawyers have surpassed the number of male lawyers, partly because law firms do not expect women to break away from the firm with clients and employees.
It is not just that, ambitious people who want to grow too fast are not appreciated in most hierarchical organizations. They threaten too many people and attract a lot of negative attention.
This is not only true about a law firm, you will face the same at the bar even if you are an independent lawyer.
Why people struggle with office politics
Not all people struggle with office politics. Usually the smartest, most talented people, who are good at their work but not so good at the relationship aspect of things, fail to understand office politics and become the victim of it.
If you are extremely logical and righteous, you will have a very difficult time dealing with office politics, no matter how many times you change your job!
Office politics is nothing sinister. It is very much human. It is just about relationships, loyalties and exchange of favours. It is no different than networking in that way.
This is where most people struggle with office politics. They expect data, logic, spreadsheets to move things, whereas most of it happens through interpersonal relationships. Let me quote a Harvard Business Review article on this:
“I won’t do it,” he said. “I don’t care who they are; I won’t buddy up to people I don’t like and respect just because I want something from them.”
This came from a senior manager at a Fortune 500 company. It was a theme we hear over and over from managers at all levels. They’re reluctant to take part in what they call “political games.” They consider organizational conflict and competition mostly ego-driven, adolescent games. They want disputes settled through data, analysis, and logic, by what’s “right” — not by who knows whom, who owes whom, or who plays golf with whom. To build relationships simply because they want something from other people is, to them, blatant manipulation.
So they withdraw from much organizational give-and-take. Like our senior manager, they deal with others when there’s an issue or problem, but they don’t build productive ongoing relationships except with those few they happen to like personally. Otherwise, they hunker down and focus on their own groups and work.
Are you one of those managers? If so, you’re probably making yourself and your group less effective than you could or should be.
Office politics is a bad name given to human relationships in the workplace that are not bound by formal rules and obvious expectations. The 50% of people who complain the most about it are people who do not understand the rules of building and sustaining relationships and therefore find it hard to progress in their career.
Your career is a team sport. If you cannot engage in give and take, if you cannot network, if you cannot form alliances and be part of groups that have each other’s back, you will find it very hard to succeed at the game we call career.
In most cases, people fail at this because they think this is evil and unfair. To succeed you need a shift in your mindset.
To get you started, or if you need a refresher on how to succeed at office politics, let me share 5 basic principles that would help you to succeed in any organization:
You need a close relationship with your boss, one which ideally transcends a mere work relationship
Do you trust your boss? Does he trust you? Does he know that you have his back, and your responsibility and loyalty is not limited to the paycheck? Do you like, admire, support him? If you don’t, then chances are that he will also take limited interest in you.
What about the people who would take that extra interest in what he wants to do, how he wants to progress, and where he is stuck? Imagine that a colleague keeps an eye on what he is struggling with and helps him out completely out of turn, not out of duty but out of love and care.
I bet your boss will have the welfare of that colleague on the top of his mind.
This is not unfair, this is just human nature at work. Your boss will treasure that colleague and go out of his way to retain that person.
A good relationship with your boss will be based on you accepting him or her as your mentor, regular conversations (preferably once a day, and if not possible then thrice a week) and authenticity. You cannot just flatter your boss and give fake compliments and expect great results. This takes actual effort beyond that.
If you want to build the relationship, you are the one who will have to take the initiative and make the effort to reach out, bridge the gap, seek advice and time, and create a relationship based on trust, respect and loyalty. You need to go to him or her with your problems.
Your relationship with your boss is the most critical factor in your career as long as you do not work for yourself. If you deny this reality or fail to work at it, you will not go as far as you otherwise would.
You need to choose carefully who you work for and who your allies are going to be
Not all people are the same. Many people are wounded, hateful, scared, disloyal, inauthentic and behave accordingly. You do not want to be part of those networks. You do not want to work for a boss who has no vision and does no real work and endlessly engage in fruitless scheming and banter. Work for people who are on purpose, and have big and inspiring goals to achieve for the team.
Once in a while, you will find yourself at the wrong place. Places that do not appreciate authenticity, where fairness is not considered a virtue, which do not respect the human beings working there, would not be a good place you to work at. Leave such workplaces ASAP, before they suck out your energy, enthusiasm and excitement that you have for your work.
You need to have allies at your workplace. They need not be only senior people. Even a secretary, office boy or court clerk could be your ally. Make a list of the people you need as your ally. This is just like networking. You add value to those people first, until they learn to like you, trust you and respect you. This is the point where you begin to build organizational clout.
Sometimes you are able to build such powerful relationships at work, that when you leave, your entire network leaves with you. That is the power of workplace relationships. What does it take to build such a powerful bond with your coworkers? Do not be loyal to you job alone, you need to learn to be loyal to your network as well.
Avoid gossip at all costs and align yourself with the highest good of your organization
Manipulation is the quickest way to lose respect. Gossiping in the second quickest.
If you manipulate people you may get some fast results that you weren’t going to get otherwise. Unfortunately, people begin to figure out quite soon what is going on, and they lose respect for you. It is then very hard to get their trust back, ever.
It is the same for gossip. You will lose good will, and make lifelong enemies, for a few seconds of gossip. It will kill trust and ruin careers, of others if not your own.
Yes, there will be a lot of people around you who will do these things and will seem to succeed. However, there is a huge cost of manipulation and gossip that individuals and organizations pay, even if later and not immediately. Do not make the mistake of thinking that you or anybody else can get away without paying the price.
What is important is to align yourself with the good of your organization, even if it is against your own personal goals or comfort zone. When you take a stand for an inspiring result for the success of the organization, and become the rallying point of others who believe in that cause, you will build formidable clout in your organization, will have the blessing of the highest level of leaders and will become a force to reckon with in any organization.
This is a common point most would-be office politicians miss out on.
Forge and protect relationships, and stand for something.
Build a personal brand for fairness, competence and transparency
Succeeding in organizational politics in the long term requires you to earn the trust of the people who are even outside your immediate circle. How will people who never met you, or do not interact with you much, trust you? How will they know that they should align themselves with you? How will they come to appreciate that you stand for a cause and must be strengthened rather than weakened?
This is where brand building is super important. For the highest level of success, you need mastery in office politics. And at the level of mastery, your reputation will precede you.
Why would people want to be in your corner? What will attract the most talented juniors to come and reinforce you? Why will even the most vicious cutthroat colleagues who otherwise slaughter people, support you, protect you and move you forward?
People need to know that you are fair, competent and transparent. They need to know that they can trust you. They need to believe that you have their interest in your heart. They need to believe that you will not let them down.
It is also a great idea, for the same reason, to build your brand outside the office too. That helps you to reinforce your brand within the office as well.
That is what makes leadership at the highest level possible and successful.
What do you think is office politics?
I sincerely hope that after reading this far you will have a little shift in your view of what is office politics and what you can do about it. Do you?
How do you cope with office politics? What kind of relationship do you have with your boss? Are your colleagues threatened by you, or thrilled to have you around? Have you taken the responsibility of the organization’s success on your able shoulders? Share your stories with me. Hit reply to this mail.
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