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Office Politics: To Play or not to Play

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Office politics. Should you avoid them, or will that hurt your chances for advancement?

Some people pretend office politics don’t exist, or they act as if they are above it all. But is that the wisest approach?

Maybe not. Some organizational development experts say that avoiding office politics can impede your career advancement. It makes you look aloof, remote, even snooty. And this could lead to your being left out of important activities, or passed over for special projects or for a promotion.

employees at water cooler

So what should you do?

Talking about co-workers and managers behind their backs, spreading rumors, making fun of people’s quirks, taking credit where it isn’t due, sucking up to the boss – these are the activities we usually think of when we hear the words “office politics.”

Certainly no one would suggest you engage in those activities.

But socializing and getting along with co-workers are essential to fitting in and belonging. Making sure that managers know you are committed, competent and hard-working is vital to your chances for advancement. And building coalitions to achieve work objectives can help you meet your performance goals.

When you view office politics in these more positive ways, they can be a healthy force. But you have to navigate the waters carefully so as to avoid the snags. Here are some suggestions for how to succeed at office politics by staying positive:

Practice ‘reflective listening’

“Knowledge speaks – wisdom listens” said an unlikely philosopher – Jimi Hendrix. One way to stay on the high ground of office politics is to become a good listener.

 

Reflective listening means reflecting back to speakers the gist of what you hear them say and the feeling behind it, often reframing it in a more solution-oriented light.

For example, when a co-worker is grumbling about another co-worker passing on extra work and then letting the boss think he did it himself, you might say, “It sounds like you are feeling slighted because you are working extra hard and not getting recognized for it.”

Know when to – and not to – use influence

There are some things you can’t control, so your best strategy is to accept them and let go of any resentment. For example, if someone else gets the corner office that you had been coveting, it might seem petty to complain.

On the other hand, sometimes you can be a force for positive change. If co-workers are complaining about a grueling production schedule, and you have an idea about how to bring about better results, speak up. Even if your idea is not accepted, you showed that you heard their concerns and cared enough to try to resolve them.

Stay professional at all times

Being professional means different things. One of them is that you can contain your emotions when you are upset, stressed out or irritated. Focus on solving the problem, rather than venting negative feelings at work. You can do the latter with your non-work friends or significant other.

Confront your saboteurs

If office politics turn nasty and you believe someone is actively sabotaging you – for example, withholding information or materials you need to do your job to make you look bad – then you may need to speak to that person directly and candidly about it.

For example, “Sarah, I notice that you are holding the sales orders back from me for several days after you receive them. I need them right away so I can ship the materials. What seems to be the problem?” Let her know that if she doesn’t change her behavior right way you will take it up with the boss.

Perform random acts of kindness

One of the best preventatives for being victimized by office politics is to be well thought of by your co-workers. And a good way to do that is to take on an occasional selfless task or project, or engage in acts of kindness where there is no obvious pay-off for you. For example, if a co-worker has to stay late to finish a job, offer to stay and help.

If you learn to avoid the negative side of office politics and engage in them in appropriate ways, your career may fare better than if you avoid politics altogether.


Working with Ian Shuman, and more recently with Elinor Litwack, has been wonderful. Ian brings a wealth of CPA management experience, which has proven invaluable in helping our firm address management issues.

Ana Ramos |  Associate Director for Administration
Stanley Medical Research Institute