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Minding your own business in an office setting need not help with getting ahead. A few lessons can set you up to handle all or most of the office politics. Image Credit: Shutterstock

“I am very bad at dealing with office politics…”

For years, I used to feel proud making this statement. It was true - I was terrible at it. And this impacted my career.

If there’s one lesson I can share, it is that staying away from office politics is the biggest weakness in any career. It is nothing to be proud of.

Understanding office politics

It exists in every organisation. Something that is a default outcome of having people, groups, and power asymmetry within organisations. It can be both good and bad.

“Office politics encompasses the social interactions, decision-making, and competing interests within the workplace.”

When seen carefully this definition has nothing negative. In my work as a leadership advisor, I have created ‘competency models’ - which articulates the skills, knowledge and behaviours that an organisation defines as necessary for high performance. Individuals are typically evaluated against this model to identify potential - and for organisations to invest in their development.

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Organisational savvy competencies

Surprisingly, the threads of these competencies are the same that you will find at play in office politics:

  1. The ability to understand and learn the power relationships within the organization or in customer and supplier organisations.
  2. The ability to identify who the real decision-makers are and how they can be influenced.
  3. The ability to anticipate how individuals and groups within the organisation will respond to new situations.
  4. The ability to persuade, convince, influence, or impress individuals or groups in order to get them to go along with - or support - an objective.

The only difference is that in office politics these competencies are used by individuals to disadvantage someone else to benefit themselves.

You might be wondering, ‘If these competencies are desirable and can be used positively, why are some of us so bad at it?’ The reason is that some of us have a negative association with the term ‘politics’ that becomes our own personal roadblock.

Rewire office politics

Office savvy when done well, can help to build relationships, solve problems, and get things done. Here’s how you can hone it:

Analyse formal structures

Spend time to map the formal structure or hierarchy of the organization. Understand chain of command, positional power, rules and regulations, policies and procedures, etc. Know who is formally required to sign-off on decisions.

Map informal structures

Spend time to map the informal structure of an organization. Recognise who the key actors and decision-influencers are. This knowledge is powerful when the formal structure does not work as well as desired.

Understand the 'real' culture

Recognise the unspoken no-nos. My favourite test is ‘How things get done when no one is looking’. Recognise and use this to produce the best outcomes.

Understand internal politics

Sense the ongoing political relationships within the organisation such as alliances and rivalries. Without this knowledge you are always likely to be blindsided.

Understand real issues

Develop the ability to understand the reasons for the ongoing organizational priorities. What are the problems? What opportunities are being pursued? Is there an external force, investor or regulator, influencing the organization? Know what is keeping everyone awake at night..

Work towards coalitions, collaborations

Work behind-the-scenes and build support for ideas in anticipation of the decisions you need. This should include identifying all possible roadblocks, and potential resistance by individuals and interest groups. Then offer directly, or through others, ‘what is in it for them’ if they offer their support.

Some people are more naturally inclined to engage in politics than others. There are a number of things that you can do to improve the ability to influence different personalities. The most important aspect is to control how you are perceived by others.

Be assertive, not aggressive. It is important to be able to stand up for yourself without being seen as aggressive.

Be discreet. Keep your conversations and actions confidential.

Be positive and supportive. Create a positive and supportive work environment.

Focus on performance: Even when you master being office-savvy, remember that competence and performance remain key factors for long-term success. Continuously develop your skills, deliver quality work, and strive for excellence in your role. Your achievements will ultimately speak for themselves.

Unlike the popular advice you will always get – ‘Stay away from office politics’, you should know that it is a reality all around us. Your ability to be a superstar in navigating it constructively is a super-skill that commands a premium.