Dulling the Edge of Office Politics

BY Tim Londergan
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Early in my career, I was in a sales support research position and naive of office politics. Mistakenly, I thought my work spoke for itself. However, during a sales slump, not having measurable goals tied to revenue put my job in jeopardy. Hurtfully, few on the team spoke up for my contribution, so my position was at risk. Ultimately, I prepared a successful defense by showing my involvement in several large contracts. The lesson learned: I must speak for my work!

Turn on to politics, or politics will turn on you.”Ralph Nader

Office Politics is Inescapable

Every organizational structure has elements of politics. It’s baked into the hierarchy, the decision-​making, the distribution of resources, the recognition of status or other power relations among individuals. One cannot avoid the simple exercise of power when people are thrown together. Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal’s book, “Reframing Organizations” accurately states, “the question is not whether organizations will have politics but rather what kind of politics they will have.” As human beings, using relationships, influence and power is all part of how we engage. What remains is HOW we choose to use it; or how office politics is used against us.

Politics: The Art of the Exercise of Power

Plato believed that conflicting interests of different parts of society can be harmonized. He proposed that the best rational and righteous political order leads to a harmonious unity of society and allows each of its parts to flourish, but not at the expense of others. Therein lies the rub. Often, in a highly competitive business environment, there exists a shortage mentality. It's seen as a zero-​sum game where there is only one winner. Conversely, competing for scarce resources, such as a desirable job or larger budget should be approached in the spirit of universal benefits. Perhaps your office politics is not pathological, but we all must develop political competence to avoid being left behind.

Political Intelligence is Not Built-In

Political intelligence is not an inherent trait. Certainly, people learn how to exploit their power and sense weakness in others. But office politics doesn’t have to be bad. Extolling your virtues and your accomplishments to your boss is often necessary. Also advantageous is building alliances with others in a mutually helpful connection. Still, in the workplace, you sometimes need to make demands. Remember that you may have to offer an exchange to get what you want.

Reframe Your Perception of Workplace Politics

Political proficiency is not taught in business school. However, you can prepare yourself. Niven Postma, writing for Harvard Business Review dispels 5 myths of office politics and how you can ease yourself into playing the game well. The myths set the scene for Postma to urge you to reframe the way you look at workplace politics and what it means to you. Importantly, the author asks you to assess your tolerance for lobbying your causes and willingness to build relationships, all part of laying the groundwork for political success. Essentially, Postma wishes you to evaluate your style against your organization’s political environment. These are deeply personal assessments regarding your life and career. Finally, there is urging to continuously work on your “relationship currency” as an investment in strategic relationships with both your allies and your adversaries.

Shifting your perspective about office politics and using it effectively is the first step to seeing and realizing its benefits. Your ability to jump into the fray rather than turn away can make your work life much more rewarding and create pathways for even greater success and credibility.

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