Last Updated on August 6, 2021
Working as part of a team and collaborating effectively involves learning how to navigate office politics. At some point in your professional life, you will need to work side by side with other people with varying mindsets, perspectives, and life experiences. Understanding how office politics work will make you a happier, more productive and engaged employee with better collaboration skills.
Recruitment agency Lensa used its unique insight into office dynamics to offer some actionable steps to deal with office politics and hone your people skills. In order to succeed in your job, having the technical skills to carry out your tasks simply isn’t enough. It’s key that employees develop empathy, communication skills, and conflict management ability to work in the right way and handle differences of opinion in the best way possible.
How To Successfully Navigate Office Politics
The term “office politics” is often synonymous with bootlickers, backstabbing, and office gossip. This type of behavior is usually a result of people trying to improve their status and move up in the company. Unfortunately, employees who regularly take part in office politics often become disengaged and less productive. However, it is possible to deal with office politics without compromising your integrity and values.
Learning to recognize signs of toxic office politics (cliques, in-groups etc,) comes down to observing the situation. Once you see signs of toxic office politics, it’s time to think about how you can avoid the drama and set an example with your behavior. Office politics is usually a result of a bad culture, and the only way to change a culture is through your own behavior. Avoid getting involved in negative conversations, don’t cast judgment on other colleagues, and maintain a positive, professional attitude when dealing with even the most difficult colleague.
Getting To Know Your Colleagues’ Profiles
According to Lensa, successfully navigating office politics involves developing an understanding of who you’re working with and how best to deal with them. Lensa has put together some common employee profiles to help you categorize your colleagues and learn what makes them tick. It’s also very important to understand what type of employee you are and how you work with other profile types.
Every office has one; that one person who lives for gossip. They know everything that’s going on in the company and in the private lives of their colleagues. While it can be fun to hear all the latest juice, office gossip is toxic and can be incredibly damaging. When you hear gossip creep into the conversation, don’t engage but don’t judge. Politely excuse yourself from the conversation at the earliest opportunity (without appearing rude or upset) and don’t repeat anything that you hear.
The Credit thief
The Credit Thief is incredibly driven and eager to advance their position in the company, Lensa says. They will stop at nothing to gain recognition and praise, even if that means taking credit for other peoples’ work. It can be incredibly frustrating to collaborate with someone who takes credit for every success, but the key is communication. Make sure that you clearly communicate what you’re working on and the extent of your contribution during meetings and 1-to-1s.
By giving frequent updates to your manager and teammates, your role in the project will be clearer and it will be more difficult for others to take credit for your work. It’s key that you communicate this information in the right way, without it coming off as bragging. Stick to facts and tangible results and credit others’ contributions fairly, including the credit thief’s.
You know the colleague who is always dishing out compliments? That’s the Flatterer. While getting compliments can feel amazing, they lose their meaning when you know that the person giving you it says the same thing to everyone. Complimenting everyone all the time can come across as fake and can make people feel uncomfortable. If people think someone is not being genuine with them, this makes it difficult to build the trust and respect needed to work together effectively.
Unfortunately, in life there are people who believe that another person’s success is detrimental to them. This type of person will often feel threatened by others’ success and will resort to sabotage to keep them down, like unfairly criticizing others’ work, blaming their colleagues’ for group failures, and just generally looking for ways to undermine their teammates.
If you spot a Saboteur in your midst, take a deep breath and keep your cool. Be extra vigilant when working with them, communicate in writing when possible, and if you hear them giving unfair criticism or blame, calmly speak up and shut the conversation down. Setting an example through your own behaviour and building a good reputation is your best armour against the Saboteur.
The Lobbyist is that person in the office who just won’t accept other peoples’ views, believing that their own opinion is always the correct one. It can be incredibly difficult to work with someone who thinks they always know best. If you find yourself working with a Lobbyist, Lensa advises always speaking up and explaining your ideas.
Don’t let their strong opinions intimidate you, as their colleague, your voice is just as valuable and your opinions should be heard with the same level of open-mindedness as theirs. Politely and calmly ask for time to voice your opinions and open the floor for discussion so everyone has a chance to contribute. When all the opinions are heard, only then should a decision be made, democratically.
Most offices will have an Advisor. This is the colleague who everyone turns to for feedback, know-how, or support. The Advisor has a wealth of experience both in their role and in office politics. Thanks to their deep knowledge of the business, the Advisor usually holds a lot of influence in the company. Lensa recommends taking the time to build a strong working relationship with this colleague, it could be great for your professional development and standing in the business.
Has Your Office Turned Toxic Thanks To Office Politics?
While almost every organization has some level of workplace politics, it’s important to recognize when this is run-of-the-mill office politics or something more toxic. If your office has an extremely high level of politics, it might be time to move on.
Working in this environment long-term could have a negative impact on your professional development as well as your mental health, often resulting in burnout. In its article on office politics, Lensa breaks down the different levels of office politics; from the typical, manageable office politics most offices see, to more extreme, pathological office politics that are extremely toxic.
Office Politics Scale: Low
If you’re lucky enough to work in a company with next to know office politics, thank your lucky stars. Companies with no office politics tend to be more results-oriented, focusing on what you achieve rather than who you know. Of course, conflicts and other issues will pop up from time to time, we’re human after all, but generally speaking this type of workplace isn’t politically driven. Lensa suggests that companies that encourage collaboration, feedback, and recognition often have low levels of office politics. Hard work alone will be enough to shine in this type of organization. No campaigning necessary.
Office Politics Scale: Moderate
If your workplace has a moderate level of office politics, this is usually a manageable situation that may simply require setting some boundaries. Politics and other issues may occur within departments or between departments, but they are resolved quickly and there is a good overall level of teamwork and recognition of each other’s hard work. At this level, office politics shouldn’t affect your career or advancement in the company and may just require some patience, empathy, and work on your personal branding.
Office Politics Scale: High (Alarm bells should be ringing)
If you find yourself working in a highly competitive working environment, there’s a good chance that your office is extremely political. Some companies foster a highly competitive culture so that employees constantly feel pressure to overperform, work overtime, and hold their colleagues accountable for mistakes.
Unfortunately, this culture tends to reward employees who step on their colleagues to get ahead. Telltale signs that you’re working in an office with a lot of workplace politics include colleagues constantly (and publicly) undermining each other, a stressful environment, and promotions based on relationships rather than merit.
Despite organizations having code of conduct policies and other measures to promote fairness, these are often not enough to deter office politics at play. When office politics reach this level, it’s time to weigh up if this is the best place for you to grow your career. If there are opportunities for professional development, then you will need to work on your personal branding skills and learn how to navigate the environment. If there aren’t, you should look for other opportunities with a healthier culture.
Office Politics Scale: Pathological (Run for your life)
If a workplace has extreme levels of office politics, even the simplest of interactions can become stressful and loaded. This toxic culture is usually categorized by a lack of recognition, few growth opportunities, an unfair process for internal promotion, and fear of making mistakes.
Working in this environment leads to burnout, where employees feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and completely disengaged. They tend to participate less in meetings and other aspects of office life, speak negatively of the company and colleagues, and accomplish less. Office politics at this level calls for a culture change. Employees need to build trust and mutual respect, developing a culture of feedback, recognition, and promotion based on merit. If your company isn’t prepared to make serious changes to the current toxic culture, get out of there.
How to Improve Your Office Politics Game
Love it or hate it, you will need to take part in some office politics if you plan to move up in your company. While you should never get involved in toxic workplace behavior, you will need to learn how to manage difficult personality types, promote yourself, and build a reputation as a highly valuable employee. Here are some tips, put together from boots-on-the-ground experts Lensa, to help you raise your office politics game.
1. Get To Know Your Org Chart
Familiarize yourself with your company’s organizational chart to make sure that you know who the influencers, power players, and decision-makers are, suggests Lensa. Most office politics don’t follow the organizational chart, so don’t just study the chart, study your environment too.
Look out for people with influence and mentors. When you have a good idea of the people in the company you want to align yourself with, reach out to them via LinkedIn or at the water cooler and develop a good working relationship with them. This can do wonders for your professional development as well as your standing in the company when it comes to promotions and getting to work on bigger projects.
2. Make Connections
The best way to survive a politically charged office is to foster positive relationships with your colleagues. Teams who trust each other and connect well often outperform those with conflict or distance. Making genuine connections with your colleagues (both in and out of your team) will make your working life happier and more fulfilling. Having a strong support network around you will help you deal with stressful situations at work and give you a sense of belonging.
Treat your colleagues (even the awful ones!) with empathy and patience, set healthy boundaries and calmly address any attempts to overstep your boundaries, and if you have a conflict with a colleague, handle it privately and professionally. While avoiding nasty office gossip is recommended, the more connections you make the more you’ll get to know the lay of the land. Talking badly about your colleague is not acceptable, but keeping an ear to the ground and staying in the know about what’s happening around the office is sometimes invaluable.
3. Work On Your “People Skills” & “Personal Branding”
Office politics is often about who you know, not what you know. To successfully navigate office politics, you need to build your network. This can be done through developing your people skills and personal branding. Personal branding is how you present yourself to the world. It’s the image of yourself that you project to your colleagues that makes you stand out from the crowd.
Take the time to work on your people skills by practicing active listening, handling your emotions at work, and building rapport with your workmates. Authentic praise, a positive attitude, and being empathetic will usually make you a firm favorite amongst your colleagues. Avoid talking over your colleagues, oversharing, or withholding recognition, this can damage your personal brand.
The more you solidify your reputation as a great professional who promotes a positive culture, the more likely you are to rise above petty workplace squabbles and achieve your goals.
4. Learn the Unwritten Rules
Lensa recommends observing the company rules –paying special attention to the unwritten ones– if you want to succeed at office politics. For example, if the official clock out time is 6pm but nobody leaves until 7.30pm, then this could be an unwritten rule.
While these rules aren’t official and may seem a bit ridiculous, it’s important to be aware of them. If you want to get ahead in your company, not only will you need to learn these unwritten rules, but you’ll need to follow them too. Pay special attention to the hours your colleagues are clocking, how much time they spend away from their desks, and how they communicate with each other (during meetings and informally), then follow suit.
5. Don’t Get Sucked In
If you find yourself on the receiving end of office politics, don’t engage. Letting yourself get sucked into the negative atmosphere will just make things worse. Try to remove your emotions and remember that this is not personal (even if it feels like it is), but rather the result of a toxic culture. If conflict arises, remain calm and focus on specific behaviors rather than personal comments about your colleague.
Use “I feel…” rather than accusatory language so that the other person doesn’t feel attacked and stop listening. There is no such thing as “winning” an office conflict, both of you will damage your reputation and create an uncomfortable working environment going forward.
Remove your ego from the situation, find a way to resolve the situation calmly, but never shy away from speaking up when something has bothered you. It’s always best to communicate what has displeased you and find a solution rather than letting it fester.
6. Analyze The Culture
If you’re feeling frustrated or confused with certain behaviors or attitudes, take a close look at the company culture. For example, if you like to have a voice and participate in meetings but the culture is very hierarchical, the odds are you’re going to feel frustrated a lot of the time. In a hierarchical culture your manager will speak for you and recognition and other opportunities will be awarded based more on the organizational chart than on merit.
Equally, if the culture is biased towards certain personality types, genders, or age groups, it will help you understand why things operate the way that they do. Your company’s culture needs to be aligned with your values and way of working, if not you will struggle to navigate workplace politics.
Office politics can be stressful and distracting, but don’t let it get in the way of your career. Get to know who your colleagues are, what motivates them, and how they operate; when you understand them better you will be more equipped to deal with their behaviors. It’s also important to work on your own self awareness to identify your own behaviors and take steps to develop your empathy, people skills, and communication skills.
By learning how to build strong, healthy working relationships with your colleagues, improve your personal branding skills, set clear boundaries, and how to deal with uncomfortable office situations in a professional and empathetic way, you’ll help to create a much healthier corporate culture and a more aligned, successful team.