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.

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#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.


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

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