Enterprise Software

10 ways to survive office politics

Friction, deceit, gossip, rivalry, power plays -- fine for movies and TV, but potentially disastrous in the workplace. Calvin Sun looks at strategies for steering clear of issues that can unravel company culture and hurt your career.

Office politics will never go away. It's a fact of company life. However, destructive office politics can demoralize an organization, hamper productivity, and increase turnover. Here are some tips, applicable for both staff and management, on dealing with office politics.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: Live at peace with others

The easiest way to avoid problems with politics is to get along with people. I'm not saying you need to hug everyone and sing songs, and I'm not saying you have to be a pushover for everyone. You can be pleasant and professional, while at the same time being assertive when necessary. If you have a concern, focus only on the issue, not on the person. If you have to refuse a request, explain why and try to come up with alternative solutions.

Living at peace with others also means being careful about choosing sides during office power struggles. Aligning yourself with one faction or the other will prevent you from working effectively with people from the "other" side, thereby hampering your productivity and thus your performance. It's even worse if "your" faction loses out. Instead, try to focus on your tasks, dealing with people in either faction on the basis of the tasks alone, and avoid talk on the political issue that separates the groups.

#2: Don't talk out of school

Three can keep a secret if two of them are dead.

-- Benjamin Franklin

Does your organization have issues? Have people told you things in confidence? Then keep those matters to yourself. Talking to outsiders about issues within your organization makes all of you look bad to that outsider. Furthermore, your boss or your boss's boss will not appreciate that behavior. People will find out that you spoke about what they told you, and they'll lose confidence in you and respect for you.

#3: Be helpful

We all have responsibilities and objectives, and those things should receive priority. Nonetheless, if it doesn't take too much time, being helpful to others can reap benefits for you. Does someone need a ride in the direction you live? Did your co-worker leave headlights on in the parking lot? Is someone having trouble building an Excel macro? If you can help that person, especially if you can do so without taking too much of your time, you benefit yourself as well as the other person. By doing these things, you're building political capital and loyalty. In doing so, you reduce the chances that you will be the victim of political intrigue.

#4: Stay away from gossip

I never repeat gossip, so listen carefully.

-- Old joke

Nothing destroys the dynamics of an office more than gossip. Stay away from it, because nothing good comes from it. Just be sure you avoid the "holier than thou" attitude of lecturing your co-workers on the evils of gossip. You'll make them lose face, and they'll resent you. Instead, try subtly changing the subject. For example, suppose the group is talking about Jane's problems with her child, and of course Jane is absent from the group. Do some free association and try to come up with some topic that's related to Jane or her child, but won't involve gossip. Then, make a comment about that topic.

For instance, suppose you know that Jane's child is involved in a sports league. Mention this fact, thereby linking the child and the league. Then, shift the conversation so that you're now talking about the league rather than Jane's child. You could ask when schedules will be published, or if they need parent volunteers. If you do it right, no one will even notice that you've moved them away from the gossip.

#5: Stay out of those talk-down-the-boss sessions

Suppose your co-workers start complaining about the boss. If you join in, it makes you look disloyal to the boss. If you don't, it looks awkward in the group. What can you do? As with the situation of gossip, try changing the subject by linking the boss to another topic, then talking about that topic instead. Or you could simply respond to your co-workers with a smile and a tongue-in-cheek, "Come on, aren't we exaggerating? [name of boss] really isn't THAT bad." Be careful, though, because it could be taken as an admission by you that the boss is bad.

#6: Be a straight arrow

The best way to keep out of trouble politically is to be seen as someone who doesn't play office politics -- in other words, a straight arrow. Do what you say you're going to do, alert people to problems, and admit your mistakes. Others will respect you, even if they don't always agree with you. More important, you have a lower chance of being a victim of politics.

#7: Address the "politics" issue openly when appropriate

Many times, when I do organizational assessments, I sense anxiety on the part of client staff. To address this anxiety, I tell people I interview that I'm not there to get people fired. I'm there to help the organization function better. It might not completely allay their fears and suspicions, but at least I've brought up the issue and addressed it.

Think about doing the same thing if you believe politics is an underlying theme at your company. Tell people you're not interested in scoring political points but only in getting the job done. It might not work, but unless you bring the matter up, there's no chance at all that they will believe you. So if a co-worker is unavailable, and you have to act on that person's behalf, consider saying to that person, "I had to act because of your absence. I wasn't trying to go behind your back and I wasn't trying to show you up."

#8: Document things

Nothing saves a job or career more than having a written record. If you believe a matter will come back to haunt you, make sure you keep a record of the matter, either via e-mail or document. Documentation is also an effective way to highlight of your own accomplishments, which can help you when your performance evaluation is conducted.

#9: Set incentives to foster teamwork

If you're a manager or senior executive, take a close look at your incentives. Are you unwittingly setting up your staff to work against each other? Do your metrics address only individual departments, or do they also address how departments could benefit the larger organization?

For example, suppose the hardware department of Sears reduced all its prices by half. If you measured only profitability of the department, you would conclude that it is performing horribly. However, that measurement would neglect to account for increased volume in all other departments because of the hardware department.

If you reward employees in a department based only on how well that department does, you may inadvertently cause destructive competition among departments. Each one will be competing against every other one, and all the departments could end up in a worse position. To minimize this possibility, give employees incentives based not only on department results but on organization results as well. That way, employees from different departments have more motivation to work together and less motivation to engage in destructive politics.

#10: Set an example for your staff

People in an organization look to leadership to see how to act. Do you want your staff to refrain from negative politics? Do you want to see collaboration and teamwork instead of petty rivalries, jealousy, and back-stabbing? Act the way you want your staff to act, and they will follow you.

About

Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

27 comments
Rainbow zebra
Rainbow zebra

Very good article, and 99% of offices suffer from some form of office politics so most certainly worth reading! Another thing that leads to an 'easier' office life is making sure that staff have sturdy, robust and comfortable work areas as well as seperate break out rooms. A good ergonomically designed office can work wonders for staff moral and also raise productivity. If you look after your staff then (generally) your staff will repay you with commitment and increased productivity.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

A. Read your Bible isn't going to have a beneficial effect. Especially that master and servant bit in 5

JackOfAllTech
JackOfAllTech

#1: Live at peace with others "If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men." Romans 12:18 #2: Don't talk out of school "A talebearer reveales secrets: but he that is of a faithful spirit conceales the matter." Proverbs 11:13 #4: Stay away from gossip "But let none of you live as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men's matters." 1 Peter 4:15 #5: Stay out of those talk-down-the-boss sessions "Let as many servants {or employees} as are under the yoke count their own masters {or bosses} worthy of all honour, that the name of God and His doctrine be not blasphemed." 1 Timothy 6:1 #6: Be a straight arrow "Whoever brags about himself is like clouds and wind without rain." Proverbs 25:14 "He that hides hatred with lying lips, and he that slanders, is a fool" Proverbs 10:18 "He that covers his sins shall not prosper: but whoever confesses and forsakes them shall have mercy." Proverbs 28:13 #10: Set an example for your staff "For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you." John 13:15 "...but you be an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity." 1 Timothy 4:12

star_topology
star_topology

Re: #5 (Talk-Down-The Boss) Was just talking to a co-worker the other day who ultimately lost his job, all because of a lunchtime (off-the-clock) talk-down-the-boss session. One person, who didn't really understand the sarcastic nature of the story, ran off and ratted him out to the boss. The boss wound up cutting his hours and overtime, resulting in my co-worker leaving the job. Whoops!

fredeppy
fredeppy

Smile and agree with everyone, keep your thoughts to yourself, and when it gets too much go outside and let out a big bellerin' scream, shake yourself down and go back to work, confident in the fact that you are the only sane and rational person in the place. If al else fails, go to the gym and beat the heck out of the heavy bag while saying the idiots name who is getting to you.

sheltondoutherd
sheltondoutherd

because I was a victim of Office politics. Worked for a call center back in '99. Did my job and was quite good at it. After 6mos. of no experince in a help desk call center environment, became a mentor for new employees, as well as a monitor (a person that listens to employees calls and reviews it) for incoming calls. A year later, Our Team lead left for a better job, I became Team lead (interim). before that one of the employees, tried to use her "connects" (The help desk was for one of the Big 3 automotive company and one of the main directives was not to use any body in the company to advance in the company) to advance to the Team lead position. She was found out and thus fired. Then a month later the vote went out and I was pick. I was reluctant for the job at first, but due to my peers, I took it. 3 mos. later the employee that was terminated got her job back (dont know how). then 3 months after that the company was downsizing and I was put on the chopping block. Because I was the employee's rival for the Team lead position. I didnt fight at all because I could do better (and I did) however I've done everything that is listed and still got canned due to politics.

prosenjit11
prosenjit11

This is an article that hits the base of complex dynamics in an office environment. What I understand that this topic is one of burning topics today where the real culprits survive and the innocent ones who are dedicated in the job are victimized. More often it happens that during power struggles between factions in an organisation the best and the effective employees are targeted, these are the people who are dedicated and work closely with the entire team globally responding to queries and issues from the higher management. Factions created start gossips that are turned into controversies and depict a very dirty and unruly image to the Higher Management. So, finally an employee who has nothing to do with a particular topic and just gives his views on it is victimized as if he or she is the root cause for it. For example: Communication Skills-> These are certain areas that have no concrete targets and your Boss could get 10 such feedbacks from a faction of the Group that is playing against you. In such a circumstance the best thing is to explain to your Boss WHAT IS ACTUALLY GOING ON? And also try to be polite in a documented mail trying to explain what are the long term effects and side effects. Such mails is a Risk Taking initiative and could also have the axe on the person itself who is trying to help the organisation and also trying to protect a Project, Team or his Boss. Factions could provide negative influence here and maybe a situation is created where a person is asked to leave the organisation on grounds of reacting to situations and not performing even though the person has been committed to the organisation 24/7. A debatable topic that is being discussed today and technical skills are not what plays here, the ones that are generally asked in an interview, it is mostly the soft skills and going with people, very rightly said!!!! but how do we know who is the right guy in a conspiracy?

parthibhan79
parthibhan79

A good summary of important points that every worker should know.

Snak
Snak

I try to live by most of these ideals whether I'm in work, or amongst friends. They say that the best friends in a relationship break-up are the fence- sitters, refusing to take sides and wanting to remain friends with both parties. This is also true in Office Politics. Privately (tho not any more, lol), I believe Office Politics to be the game of the inept and inadequate. Cliques are to be recognised for what they are: the comfort zone of the insecure. Most vindictiveness within an office comes from insecurity and inefficient work loading - if you're busy, there's no time to be sniping. Everyone is Human, and so gossip is a natural occurrence wherever people gather. 'Gossip' in this sense can be defined as vindictive or disparaging conversation. We all do it to a greater or lesser degree. But if you can live by the maxim 'do/say what you want as long as you cause no injustice', you'll avoid most of the Office's pitfalls. Of particular importance I think, is number 1, wherein it says 'concentrate on issues, not the people'. Wise advice indeed.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Stay out of the argument and suffer the consequences Or Argue despite the politics and be roundly distrusted by all those who are playing the game and wonder why you keep failing to get on board. Remember politics is the art of expdiency, so not playing ,means you are never going to fall in with the solution those in power wanted.

ibonnie63
ibonnie63

I have done the whole list continually for over two years, and everything that should not be happening is the result of the GM of the company. It is unfortunate the numerous people that have left and the talent not utilized within this organization. Those that remain, live in a do as he says, work environment, creating a click that if you do not join, you life is made quite miserable, they band together which eliminates having anyone believing those who are really doing the right things, while those with lack of integrity, or ethics, continue to shine. Those who remain do so with no respect for this person but being the best paying job in the area, to provide for themselves and families remain.

marvin.novello
marvin.novello

Don't you have any life experience you can draw on to post a comment? Personally I find bible quotations to be intrusive, patronising and uncomfortable. Keep you bible quotes for your church group. Not everyone appreciates religion intruding into discussions about life.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I mean like no work will get done for ages, while our less virtuous colleagues are serving pennance.....

Carlos.Barajas1
Carlos.Barajas1

Hola, I do thank you a lot the reference, very helpful, Regards Carlos

Calvin T Sun
Calvin T Sun

Hi, thanks for your comments. With regard to #6, rather than say "someone who doesn't play politics," I should have said, "someone who plays only defensive politics." i.e. don't try to hurt others with politics, but rather protect yourself with politics. Have you read the book of Daniel? There is one smart dude, in terms of office politics. Even HE played politics, in getting in good graces with the king. But he didn't use politics to hurt others. I'm surprised you didn't take exception to my point #1. In thinking about it, that point is unrealistic. Whether we like it or not, we're going to be associated with a faction in the office. I guess what I should have said is, "try to avoid dwelling on differences in factions." Again, Daniel, whether he liked it or not, was probably viewed as "one of the outsiders," or "one of those people from Israel," because that's exactly who he was: an Israelite taken captive and brought to Babylon. Thanks.

tim uk
tim uk

Tony, that's very true, if an organisation is heavily politicised then you have to get on board. The problem comes when you get on board with the wrong side, or your side turns into being the wrong side; I like Conrad's take on it... "Nevertheless I think Mr. Kurtz is a remarkable man,? I said with emphasis. He started, dropped on me a heavy glance, said very quietly, ?he WAS,? and turned his back on me. My hour of favour was over; I found myself lumped along with Kurtz as a partisan of methods for which the time was not ripe: I was unsound! Ah! but it was something to have at least a choice of nightmares."

InfoSecAuditor
InfoSecAuditor

Gotta go with Tony on this one. In the past I've been the "Straight Arrow", spending my days focused on doing the job right, mentoring those junior to me, keeping an eye on the big picture for the organization (not for personal gain, etc.). Consistently, I was passed over for promotion, training, etc. Seems like the only way to get ahead in this world is to "play the game." It's just one huge game of Survivor out there, I guess.

GoodOh
GoodOh

If you aren't in one of the factions then you are fair game for all the factions. Suggestion 6 is naive and potentially dangerous advice.

sheltondoutherd
sheltondoutherd

EDIT: I thought you were speaking of a specific company, but yea. Its a shame when people get a tad bit of power and go overboard with it.

dwdino
dwdino

Free speech for all but some .... hmmm

JackOfAllTech
JackOfAllTech

Daniel most decidedly did NOT play politics. He "purposed in his heart..." to do the right thing no matter what. It was God who granted him favor with the king BECAUSE he obeyed Him. Is it better to lose your integrity to get promoted or maintain your standard? The bible asks, what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but losed his soul? I also have been passed over for promotions, and even fired because I would not compromise my standards but God has ALWAYS provided. I may not be rich but we've never been hungry or homeless. Not one of my children has ever been in trouble and my wife and I completely trust each other. I wouldn't trade that for anything in this world.

ashishtree
ashishtree

Guys, Please help me. I am working in a company with bond so I cant left. Now my problem is, my project is not as per my expectation and it not meets the current market requirement. I have a good knowledge but company not using my skill and now I loosing my confidence and growth in my technology.

dwdino
dwdino

Joseph was not tripped up at all. He was placed into safe keeping for the appropriate time. While in prison he flourished to the point the king brought him in. Potiphar was evil. Cheating, lying, etc.

Calvin T Sun
Calvin T Sun

Hi, if we ignore politics, we get into trouble. Remember Genesis 39? Joseph went into Potiphar's house by himself, when no other servants were present. At that point, the wife hit on him, but Joseph ran out. However, because there were no other witnesses, the wife's lies were believable.

Calvin T Sun
Calvin T Sun

Hi, I agree with you. But that doesn't mean he didn't play politics. There's nothing wrong with that. Jesus said we're to be "as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves," right? Daniel had God's grace, and that grace gave him wisdom to deal with people in the right way, and especially wisdom to "cut the deal" in terms of the ten day trial.