Are you in with the in-crowd? Learn how to play by the rules… the office politics rules
Remember that sinking feeling when you weren't picked for the school football team? Or getting the sense that everyone else at work seems to know what's going on except you? Or maybe you're in the thick of all the gossip. Or you control who talks to who… and when.
If any of the above sound familiar, you've been either a victim or a controller of office politics.
It's no secret that office politics can have a detrimental effect on some members of a workforce. If you're not in the right group, or not seen as “one of the boys,” it can be damaging for both your career and your mental health.
What is office politics?
Office politics - you have to learn the rules of the game and then you have to play it better than anyone else.
First, let's clear up what is meant by office politics, sometimes referred to as work politics. It's a phrase that refers to the complex social structure of a workplace, where members of staff use any authority, power, or delegation for their own personal agenda - whether that's in a positive or a negative way.
It's what cliques were made for.
It's normal to bond with some people more than others in the workplace. Depending on the level of your social skills and how you interact with colleagues, this will probably determine where you sit in the order of hierarchy, irrespective of your job title. Within the machinations of any business or company, each person has a different role and office politics can determine who has more of the power and influence over others.
What are tangible examples of office politics?
Now that we're clear on what office politics actually is, let's look at some examples to illustrate this. Then you can get a real sense of what it is - and maybe even recognise it at your own place of work.
Giving out orders
Do you have a colleague who's constantly giving out orders even though they're the same level as you, such as, “could you just photocopy this for me?” or “can you help me with this quickly?” On an occasional basis, that's fine, but when it's a constant request throughout the days and weeks, it's time to nip it in the bud. Barking out orders implies that they know better or that you're junior to them, even when you're not.
Who doesn't love a juicy bit of gossip? Some co-workers thrive on it. It's the beckoning finger, the sideways glance, and the “did you hear about what happened on Friday night with Shaun from HR?” These stories, whether true or not, can be damaging to the point where they can destroy a person's reputation.
Playing this card can be a tool wielded with such power in the game of politics at work. By totally ignoring someone when greeting everyone else, you're excluding that person from a group while simultaneously implying they're not part of the in crowd and therefore not worth a second thought.
Those teammates who align themselves with those of a higher rank by doing the same things - mirroring - sends out a message that they're at the same level. This can be achieved by performing the same activity as their boss or showing they have the same values or points of view. The aim of the game here is to project a strong image, so that others think they're on the same level in the corporate hierarchy.
Who you know is so important in office politics that just talking to people and networking is considered a part of office politics.
More crudely known as “brown-nosing,” this action is when workers try to curry favour with those above them by constantly praising them or laughing at their terrible jokes, with the intent of getting in their good books.
If you're new to a job, you might just want to show what you're made of from the start. But overachieving is when colleagues try to overshadow others by taking on as many responsibilities as possible, thus putting their peers in a poor light.
The 7 ways you can use office politics in a positive way
Office politics are often seen as a negative aspect of working life. If you work in an office, you're going to come across them - and potentially be involved in them - whether you like it or not. So it's certainly worth working out what sort of political environment your organisation moves in, whether it suits your own style, and how you're going to be the most effective within it.
If you come to the conclusion that just focusing on your performance is unlikely to grant you the success you desire, you're halfway there. You need to invest time and energy in networking and building those connections with the people who will have your back, whatever happens.
So can office politics be positive?
Below are seven ways in which you can take office politics, and use it in a positive way.
1. Use it to reframe what office politics actually means
Treat informal conversations as “doing important homework” rather than as “lobbying,” with all the negative connotations that this can bring. In this game of influence and making those all-important connections, companies can use politics at work to help employees to grow, while creating a great environment in which to achieve common goals.
An influential player within your company publicly praises you for doing a great job, acknowledging your commitment to the company. This motivates you to continue with the excellent work and, if the rest of the team also celebrates it, this pushes your motivation even higher because you're being accepted and recognised by the group for your good work.
2. Use it to achieve goals
The core of office politics is the range of informal, unofficial, and behind-the-scenes efforts that happen within all organisations as people position themselves, their teams, their interests, and their priorities to achieve things.
There's a big meeting coming up where some major stakeholders are going to discuss and decide which projects to invest in - including your one. In order to ensure that your project gets the green light, you need to understand the perspectives and priorities of the stakeholders. Engaging with them prior to the meeting and learning what they're looking for is key to your success, as you'll then be able to present your idea more persuasively. This is how office politics can be used ethically to gain an advantage.
3. Use it to find a way through conflict
If there's conflict at work, look for the win-win situation instead of the winner who takes it all. Consider how the two opposing sides can both get what they require.
Two rivals are sizing each other up at work. It could get messy. Pitting one against the other isn't a good idea, as you could get caught between a rock and a hard place. Using your influence, guide the conversations back to the facts - for example, what decisions have to be made? What can I do to improve the situation? Let's look at the positive next steps.
4. Use it to strengthen those work relationships
Investing in strategic work relationships isn't a distraction from your “real” job… it's a huge part of it. As the saying goes, “Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer.” It's worth schmoozing, not only with those who'll certainly be your allies, but also with those who are potential adversaries.
The work culture at your place leaves a lot to be desired, with virtual connections being neglected. You see a gap for building relations through agenda-free catch ups and virtual coffee meetings. So set them up! Not only with those in your network, but also with people you'd like to have on your side, as well as a wider spread. A solid network that's diverse is so much better than a narrow one.
5. Use it to develop those people skills
Office politics are all about people and how they interact with each other. Possessing outstanding interpersonal intelligence will be massively beneficial as you nurture and grow your network. Employing an active listening stance, empathising, and reflecting on your own emotions will help when it comes to picking up on others' feelings and, in turn, what sort of approach they either like or don't like.
A sociable colleague is oversharing on personal information, to the point where you start to feel uncomfortable. Another co-worker is trying to use that information against them in an effort to make themselves look more capable. Capitalising on your teamwork qualities that showcase your people skills, you're able to diffuse the situation and persuade the co-worker to desist, leading to the maintenance of a friendly yet professional relationship.
6. Use it to stick to your principles
Before you do anything that might be fuelled by office politics, ask yourself why. If your motivation is jealousy, revenge, or fear, don't do it. If it conflicts with your beliefs on fair behaviour, don't get drawn in. You're engaging in office politics for two reasons - job fulfilment and career success - so keep that in mind.
A work peer has been promoted above you. You can feel the rise of the green-eyed monster. Jealousy sprouts from every pore of your being. You're so tempted to bad mouth your colleague to those closest to you, even though you're pretty sure she'll be great in the new role. But you don't, realising that to do so would go against your principles and probably not help your cause of potential promotion in the long run.
7. Use it to build alliances across the spectrum
Like it or not, office politics are here to stay, so you might as well learn to thrive in your work's political environment. Check out the lay of the land before diving in, then you'll have a clearer, bigger picture from the outset. Being a gossip, a backstabber, or a manipulator isn't necessary when it comes to winning at office politics.
It's not like you're torn between two lovers, but you might as well be. Two sides at work are vying for your attention and approval. Building broad alliances is key. If you can accomplish this and show colleagues at all levels that you can be relied upon, you'll have a better chance of coming out smelling of roses, no matter which political camp is currently “on top.”
The next step
Office politics might feel like a minefield when you first enter the world of work, but it doesn't have to be totally confusing now that you've read our guide and have more of an understanding of how to approach it in a positive way. Embrace office life, and all that goes with it.
If the office you're currently working in is too steeped in office politics and there's a toxic vibe to the place, it might be worth considering a move. The first thing to do is get your CV in shape for a job change. Check out the free CV review on offer and take it from there.