I learned the hard way that the secret to getting ahead is not just doing great work, it also requires the ability to navigate office politics, not in an insincere or manipulative way, but rather as a skill to better handle the politics that goes on inside your organization. You simply can’t win people based on logic and rationality.
As someone who experienced it firsthand, I was naive in ignoring it. Charming team members who would say one thing to my face and spill a different version to my boss, people who would not think twice to switch sides to please others, a boss who had personal favorites, people who were so involved in their own growth that they did not care how their attitudes and behaviors impacted others. I sort of assumed that my work would speak for itself. Looking back, it clearly didn’t.
Let me be honest. The office environment can be brutal for the uninitiated and the unprepared, especially when people engage in behaviors that aren’t productive, when they are mean, toxic and do or say things that take the focus away from doing the real job and actual work performance.
Personal motives at work can make people act in undesirable ways. Office politics can get dirty and unpleasant for everyone experiencing it when people around you spend a large part of their time advancing their careers or boosting their self-esteem.
Some clear signs that you may be experiencing it are:
Most of us have a hard time dealing with it as we have no idea how to play the game. How do we react when others who are less deserving keep getting promoted or our well-reasoned suggestions are ignored by our boss, when we keep getting passed on for a chance to present to the leadership, when someone who’s less qualified gets the project simply because they are close to the decision-maker, when our ideas are met with resistance, or when others whisper behind our back?
We respond with “This is political bullshit. I don’t play such petty games. I am out of it.” We describe office politics as dirty, manipulative, and evil. We vent out our hurt feelings with anger and frustration and then choose to take the high road by ignoring it altogether.
Political battles may seem like a waste of time. But shutting your eyes to what’s happening around you won’t make the problem disappear. All the drama can deplete your energy and suck the life out of you. Left unhandled, office politics is not only bad for your career, but it can also be harmful to your personal well-being. The more you tell yourself that it doesn’t bother you, the more it can harm you. Classifying it as right or wrong, good or bad doesn’t really help. What’s useful is to look at your own unique situation and find ways to deal with it.
The strategies outlined below won’t make your problem disappear, but after implementing them you will be far more likely to engage in positive behaviors instead of letting all the negativity around you consume you.
1. Don’t be locked in tunnel vision
What if you consider your idea to be the best or have a suggestion that’s definitely worth investing in, but the decision doesn’t go in your favor? You may react in one of the following ways:
Labeling something political just because you disagree with it, because things didn’t go your way, or because it didn’t match your expectation doesn’t make it political. Feeling sad, acting defensive, or ruminating in it doesn’t help either. You need to learn to see things as they are.
When we come from a place of judgment, we become stuck in our own worldview. When we come from a place of curiosity we expand our range of possibility - Mary Abbajay
What if the decision-maker is neither political, nor unqualified, but someone who made this decision with great care? Maybe you lack the context to see what they can see clearly. Maybe you are not experienced enough to make the right trade-offs. Maybe you are so occupied and obsessed with your own idea that you end up disregarding other valuable ideas.
The person who made the decision may be political, but assuming they are isn’t a great starting point. It’s valuable to see things for what they are even if they don’t turn in your favor. What’s useful is to ask questions to invert your thinking:
If you trust the person and their capabilities and believe it was the right decision for the organization, don’t take the decision personally and simply move on. Supporting others even if it hurts is the best way to collaborate.
Instead, if the decision smells of toxicity, if the move is indeed political and the experience keeps repeating over and over again, it’s time for you to take the next step.
You are in for a small battle when it’s the political behavior of one person or a specific group of people rather than the general culture of the organization.
When the culture of the organization itself promotes office politics, there’s no hope. You can’t really erase a company’s culture unless you are a CEO or someone in a position of power. You will encounter more and more energy suckers every step of the way who will add to your stress and anxiety. No one has the emotional bandwidth to deal with the ups and downs of a politically charged environment. It’s simply not worth your time and energy. Consider making a move before it starts to take a toll on your life.
However, there are specific strategies you can employ when dealing with a smaller group of people. The obvious one is to switch teams if that’s even a possibility to get rid of such people from your life. But, what if it isn’t an option?
Observe them for a while and notice if this is how they behave with everyone else or is it just you?
Their general attitude to play office politics could be a lack of self-awareness on their part or a deep-seated behavioral issue.
However, if it’s just you, they may be holding a personal bias or a grudge. The best you can do in the latter situation is to have a candid discussion with them. Maybe it’s just a misunderstanding that can be solved by openly expressing your concern. Tell them about your observation and invite them to share their opinion as well. Honestly, it may or may not work. They may be open to reviving the relationship or can shut it down further. The least you can do is to try rather than wish the conflict will magically get better.
Probably, you can win the war without fighting, or better yet, don’t worry about winning at all. When you put your guards down, when you stop reacting to the negativity around you, others may not find a great reason to engage in office politics, especially if they mean personal harm. You can disarm them.
I am not asking you to keep your eyes shut to what’s happening around you, but simply to make a choice to let it go for some time and see if it results in a change in their behavior and actions.
You choose to let things bother you. You can just as easily choose not to notice the irritating offender, to consider the matter trivial and unworthy of your interest. That is the powerful move. What you do not react to cannot drag you down in a futile engagement. Your pride is not involved. The best lesson you can teach an irritating gnat is to consign it to oblivion by ignoring it - Robert Greene
Often letting go is harder than it sounds, especially when it hits you personally (more in the next section). Experience is always an emotional one. But ruminating, criticizing, or otherwise feeling disappointed or discouraged won’t help either.
You need to try different strategies, learn from the experience, and implement some more when they don’t work. Learn to accept and deal with your situation or let yourself out.
What’s under your control? Identifying what you can still do empowers you to move forward instead of looking back in despair.
Whenever you feel bad about office politics, ask yourself these questions:
Not all battles are worth fighting, only the ones that are important to you. Some injustices are too big to ignore - ones that will prevent you from growing in the organization or otherwise act as an obstacle to make progress in your goals. Fretting and fighting about every issue won’t do you any good.
As the saying goes in poker, know when to hold them, know when to fold them. Sometimes, it’s important for you to speak up and express your disagreement while at other times it’s best to keep quiet. Pick your battles carefully.
Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence - Sun Tzu
To know when to act and when to simply let-go, it helps to write down what specifically about their behavior stresses you out. Then break it down into things that may seem to bother you at first but have no meaningful impact on your life and the ones that do harm you in a direct way. Learning to disconnect the two can be a powerful motivator to engage in positive behaviors when you need them the most instead of getting muddled up in negativity all the time.
What’s under your control? What can you do differently? Is there a different strategy you can apply to get to where you want to go or maybe a little bit of distraction from whatever it’s that’s bothering you at the moment?
If you are having difficulty focusing because of the office politics that you observed a while back, go take a walk to get your head clear, grab a nice cup of coffee, listen to some music even if it’s only for 5 minutes.
If your idea keeps getting rejected, next time try approaching others before the meeting to vet your idea. With multiple people speaking in favor of your idea, chances are the decision-maker will give up too.
In most likelihood, it’s your boss who makes key decisions about your future and has the power to influence your career. Work with them to define what success means to them and to you. Make sure you both have a common definition.
With that in place, take the initiative to manage up. Don’t try to please them or otherwise engage in any political behaviors. Simply be better prepared to present your case with facts:
Create visibility around your work. Use every opportunity to showcase how you contribute to their success.
Get written feedback from other senior people in the organization.
Set up one-on-one meetings to ask for feedback. Leave nothing to surprise. If possible, ask them to send their feedback in writing too.
Self-promotion is a leadership and political skill that is critical to master in order to navigate the realities of the workplace and position you for success - Bonnie Marcus
You aren’t harming anyone or trying to take undue advantage by taking better control over your own success.
Most of the time we fret about small issues that don’t really matter in the larger scheme of things. When we look back and think about them, we realize how much time and energy, the stress and anxiety we could have saved ourselves if we could have taken a better perspective of our situation.
What seems like a mountain at the moment can appear like a mole one year down the line. Yes, we do exaggerate events in our life especially when we are presently dealing with them. But taking the one year perspective of our situation can help us see it for what it is:
Previously published here.