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5 ways to seriously navigate office politics

Competitive co-workers. Difficult bosses. Jealousy over promotions. No matter which industry you call your professional home, it seems there’s no escaping office politics, probably because it’s human nature to compare, contrast and, yes, compete.

“Employees need to know and understand that office politics exist in the corporate world,” says Ricklyn Woods, a career advisor at University of Phoenix. “It’s not going anywhere.”

While office politics can look many different ways, they usually boil down to career progression. Watching Gary from down the hall get one coveted project or promotion after another can ruffle even the most complacent employee’s feathers.

Sometimes, a lack of promotion is your own fault because you aren’t requesting feedback or upskilling as necessary. Other times, it’s also your fault because you don't have a strategy for playing the politics game.

“We’re all in the game whether we want to be or not,” Woods says. “We all have a part to play in it.”

The trick, Woods goes on to explain, is to play that role authentically. You have to know what your goal is, whether it’s a promotion or a lead role (or just a role) on a project. Then, you have to figure out the strategy to accomplish it while honoring your own boundaries.

More often than not, that path involves cultivating and leveraging the right workplace relationships. Woods likens it to national politics. If someone wants to get elected, they have to meet with their prospective constituents and learn how they can serve them or add value.

The same goes for the workplace. “Employees need to build a following of people who see them as someone who they can visualize moving up.”

Part of that means making valuable contributions. Part of that means navigating office politics. Your skills and experience can inform the former. The following five steps will help you with the latter.

1. Learn the landscape

There’s a lot to be said for being an observer, especially in the workplace. So, whether you’re an employee starting a new job or just a new role, Woods recommends getting the lay of the land before you do anything else.

“You have to take a step back no matter where you worked before and understand the landscape of this organization. A lot of employees don’t take the time to do that,” she explains.

Often this is best achieved by requesting meetings with fellow employees to learn what they do, what skills they have and whom they work with.

Even if such meet-and-greets aren’t part of the traditional onboarding experience, seek it out. Be genuinely curious about other people — what do they do, what do they like, how do they work? — and let that guide you.

After you get a feel for the organizational hierarchy, pay attention to the workplace norms. How are decisions made? How do employees express ideas? How is it perceived when employees speak up in meetings?

All this is to say you should bring your industry expertise to every role but approach a new position with fresh eyes regarding company culture and politics.

Woods explains: “I almost hate to hear people say, ‘This is what we did at my last company,’ because yes, there’s some value in what you’ve learned at other places, but that usually doesn’t go over very well, because we’re not that company. There are so many different nuances; it’s not apples to apples.”

2. Network internally

Everyone knows networking is important, but not everyone knows networking should happen inside the company as much as outside it.

Part of office politics and career management, Woods says, is building relationships with people. Seek out individuals whom you will collaborate with on a daily basis as well as those who can help you build your skills and learn how to potentially move up.

Admittedly, it can feel a little mercenary to make friends with people because they might be helpful to you. But, at the end of the day, that’s what networking is. The trick is to find people you genuinely like so the relationship is authentic. 

That said, sometimes the people you need to cultivate relationships with aren’t ones you’d ordinarily seek out.

“You still have to break that barrier,” Woods advises, “and the best way to do that is really try to get to know them from their perspective. … I think the easiest icebreaker is learning more about what someone does. Why? Why do you stay at this organization? What do you like about being here? What advice would you give someone like me who’s trying to get to the next level?

3. If you can’t say something nice … take it to your manager

One intersection between office politics and workplace toxicity is gossip. Whether you have a legitimate concern or a momentary frustration, sharing it with others can feel like eating a slab of cake: gratifying in the moment, sickening in the afterglow.

“Some people sabotage their careers by trying to make friends by talking about other people,” Woods says.

Generally speaking, don’t. Talking about others almost always reflects poorly on you.

Instead, consider your issue and your audience. Can the person you’re talking to help with your problem? Will sharing information or a concern help or hurt the other person? Are you looking for resolution or do you just need to vent?

It’s OK to do the latter, but maybe do it with someone outside the office.

As Woods learned from one of her previous leaders, “Never complain to the right or the left or below. Whatever concerns you have, you should take them above to someone who may actually be able to influence change.”

4. Know thyself (and share)

If navigating office politics requires you to understand your environment, it’s equally important to understand yourself and how you fit into the political landscape at work.

For this, self-awareness is key. “You have to teach people how to treat you,” Woods explains.

Case in point: When a recent leadership change occurred in Woods’ department, she shared with her new manager some assessment results that explained her personality and how she works best.

“If I know who I am, how I work, how I thrive and what I need to be successful — and I can quickly convey that to my manager — that all just rolls itself up to that ultimate [goal] of understanding the landscape, being able to see where I fit into the political structure and confidently navigate conversations.”

This approach is also good for co-workers with whom you may collaborate closely, Woods adds.

Of course, if you don’t have an assessment at the ready, it’s just as effective to tell your manager or colleague what you need to succeed. Are you a self-starter or a team player? Do you thrive with an involved manager, or do you prefer less oversight?

Also, think back on conversations, comments or even conflicts you’ve experienced. What bothered you and why? Every interaction, good or bad, is an opportunity to learn what your values are in the workplace.

5. Accept and let go

The final step in working office politics to your advantage? Don’t fight it.

“Know that politics exist, and they’re not a bad thing,” Woods says. “We need them in our country and in the workplace.”

What’s more, politics aren’t personal. Sometimes it feels like they are, but really office politics are about making authentic connections to people and successfully advocating for yourself.

“You should strategically play the office politics game in a way that’s going to be advantageous to you and hopefully those whom you’re working around,” Woods says. “It’s not being manipulative. It’s just understanding the rules of the game and playing accordingly.”

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