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8 ways to win at office politics

Published on: Apr 4, 2014

People often associate office politics with back-stabbing and doing dirty deals behind the watercooler. But, by failing to engage in its more positive aspects, you could be missing out on pay rises, promotions and perks

1 Understand how your organisation really works

On your first day at a new firm, you may be shown a chart of the hierarchy, but what’s really important is what lies behind the chart. In any organisation, informal networks develop – and your ability to understand these is the secret of mastering office politics.

If you want to get on, you need to know about the company’s structure, its ambitions and where it stands on contentious issues, according to Phil Anderson, who teaches about office politics at Ashridge Business School.

“Find out who the most influential people are and where their priorities lie,” he says. You will then know how best to respond in different situations and who is worth having on your radar.

2 Watch out for people who spell danger

Some of these will exist in any sizeable organisation, according to Oliver James, a chartered psychologist and the author of Office Politics: How to Thrive in a World of Lying, Backstabbing and Dirty Tricks (Vermillion, 2013). He says there are three types of people who present particular dangers:

  • Psychopaths, who don’t have enough empathy to connect with others. They may take risky decisions just for kicks.
  • “Machiavels” are schemers, like the princes described by Niccolo Machiavelli, the renowned 16th-century political theorist. They try to manipulate others in ways that serve their own interests.
  • Narcissists, who have a hugely inflated opinion of themselves. They believe that they’re entitled to everything they have and want to lord it over other people.

Avoid confiding in any of these characters and treat them with caution at all times.

3 Build your own personal network in the organisation

Becoming isolated in an organisation where other people are playing politics – even in their most benign form – can make you vulnerable. You need to build networks with like-minded colleagues and those who have similar objectives to yours.

Start with the people you like, advises Penny Davenport, a career mentor and business coach who has helped many accountants. “Use peers and mentors to suggest good people you can get to know,” she says. “But don’t set out to build a power base. Instead, build genuine, warm relationships with people across your company.”

4 Create a positive image of yourself

You don’t want to be the sort of person that others want to avoid, but that’s not enough. You want to be the sort of person that other people want to know because you have a reputation for being what Anderson calls a “good egg”.

“It’s about being seen as someone who is keen to support others and take new ideas forward,” he says. “Create an impact, leaving the right messages wherever you go.”

That means not becoming known for dealing in gossip or for bad-mouthing people behind their backs. It’s the nature of office politics that the negative players take pleasure in circulating derogatory, rather than positive, comments. Don’t provide such tittle-tattle.

5 Develop your astuteness

This is the most important quality in positive office politics, according to James. Being astute means being a keen observer of what’s going on around you. He suggests that it’s about always thinking: why did that person say or do that? “Start testing yourself by asking yourself about everyone who’s going to be significant to you in your role,” says James. The key is to understand their desires and ambitions.

But astuteness should also guide how you act. The golden rule is to think about what can be achieved by whatever you say – apart from the usual pleasantries of daily discourse.

The other skills that James cites as political include being effective in your work, building networks and projecting sincerity – genuinely, if at all possible.

6 Learn how to manage your manager

This can be one of the most dangerous areas of office politics, because your pay and promotion prospects often hinge on one person’s judgements.

“People need to become good at office politics in order to succeed in the workplace,” James says. “In service industries especially, your career usually depends on the mostly subjective assessments made by your boss.”

As a result you don’t really have much choice about getting your hands dirty with office politics. And he argues: “Once you’ve decided that you want to do it, why would you not decide to do it in a deliberate and effective way, rather than simply winging it?”

When someone’s career has stalled, it’s usually because they have failed to get on with their boss, according to Davenport. “It’s not that they’re not clever or hard-working enough. It’s that they simply don’t fit in,” she says, adding that the “easiest way to have a harmonious time at work” is to respect the formal hierarchy.

Those who get ahead have often perfected the political skill of helping their boss look good in front of his or her boss, but Davenport warns that you need to “do it in a genuine way. There should be no sucking up or fake behaviour.”

7 Do blow your own trumpet

Highlighting your own accomplishments may seem a crass thing to do, especially if you’re a naturally shy or reticent character. Despite this, it is an important part of playing positive politics – and it’s possible to do so without looking like a show-off.

Anderson advises watching how other people in your organisation do it. “Learn their techniques to find out which form of self-promotion works best for you.”

It works especially well when you’re praising others in the same breath, so consider giving credit where it’s due to those who’ve helped you to succeed in a particular project. That’s a nicer way to tell everyone about your achievements.

8 Don’t discard your moral compass

Playing positive politics in an organisation doesn’t mean becoming a different kind of person. “Remember your basic moral code,” Davenport urges.

That means avoiding disreputable behaviour such as lying about colleagues, seeking or granting undeserved favours, or undermining the good efforts of other people – even those who may appear to be rivals.

Despite all this, what should you do if office politics starts to get on top of you? “Talk to somebody outside work,” Davenport advises. “When you start to describe a problem, it often seems to become less important. And get a good night’s sleep.”