Workplace politics: how to come out on top

A workplace politics drawing with two businessmen, one with a long arm sticking a knife in the other's back.
Workplace politics: how to come out on top

Workplace politics: how to come out on top? Play the game and crush company politics.

How often have you heard bosses say, “We don’t play politics, here.” It’s the same as a leading chef saying, “There are no flies in my kitchen.”

Both are declarations that we would like to be true but, deep down, we know they’re not.

Workplace politics is here to stay

For as long as people compete for power, prestige, position and money – the markers for success in a capitalist economy – there will be those who game the system for their own advantage. Once you accept that as the truth, life at work becomes easier.

Everyone who has been in business for more than a few years has come across competent colleagues who toil away without complaint year after year, yet their careers never seem to grow.

The chances are, they never learned to use a little political influence to help them along. According to Michelle Moss, a director at Signium, a global executive search and talent management company, job candidates are being told their political skills need attention.

“Stalled careers are the key driver,” she says. “Long hours and impressive gains should have resulted in career recognition but haven’t.” The individual then asks what more they can do and Moss says, “Learn to play the game and that game is corporate politics.”

Uncover the centres of the workplace politics power

Many black balls and one red linked by a line.
Who gathers the most influence? Is is probably not the most obvious individual.

This is perhaps simpler than it sounds. If you’re new at this, you need to keep a fairly low personal profile to begin with. Watch and listen carefully to see who carries the political power. A handful of individuals usually share most of it between themselves.

Their followers are likely to fall into separate camps that may be include people from different departments, but their own team members are usually their most enthusiastic supporters.

Don’t be fooled by the office megaphone, the big talker who never tires of telling everyone how much better the company would be if they were in charge

Workplace politics isn’t conducted at high volume in front of an audience: these people are merely a sideshow, like the jester in a royal court.

Here’s what you have to have a clear view on:

  • Who is respected?
  • Who has real power but doesn’t brag about it?
  • Who makes a point of mentoring and nurturing others?
  • Who keeps a cool head in a crisis?
  • Who do senior people turn to for advice?

These are the people whose support you will need to advance your career. Stay clear of anyone who causes disruption for no apparent reason or is openly in conflict with others. Successful workplace politicians are usually cool and reserved but utterly ruthless.

Your objective is to play the game in a positive way

A chess board
Play the game carefully, strategically and positively. Maintain your integrity.

Start by building relationships based on performance. Don’t involve yourself in gossip or arguments. Position yourself as someone who has the best interests of their team and the organization as their highest priority.

Get to know the influencers. Don’t try to flatter them, they’ve heard it all before. Asking for advice on a job-related matter is usually a better option.

  • Don’t be seen to join any particular faction. Be friendly and approachable to everyone.
  • Start to build your image as someone who is discreet, can be trusted and always delivers good results.
  • Be supportive of the hierarchy both above you and below but don’t develop a reputation as the chief’s pet poodle.
  • Carefully manage the troublemakers. Be friendly but don’t align yourself: they believe that they’ll get ahead by unsettling those around them. They will not. They will eventually leave empty-handed or be side-lined to somewhere they can do no harm.
  • Maintain your integrity at all times. Be worthy of the trust others place in you.
  • Consider you opinions carefully and defend them confidently but without aggression. Be prepared to concede ground if you’re presented with a persuasive case for doing so, as long as you believe it is in the organization’s best interests.

Where to from here?

For politics to work, you must consistently deliver results. Knowing the influencers is worthless if you’re not good at your job – they will disown you.

Monitor your progress by the number of informal discussions you’re invited to, the kind of confidential information that’s being shared with you and the importance of the projects you’re given to work on.

Make sure your achievements are known and always seek out the trickiest assignments or the most difficult clients as a way of demonstrating your competence, and to build confidence in your team.

Encourage others around you, especially the difficult ones, to adopt a more positive approach to their challenges and offer to help them do so.

If you want to progress at work, you must learn to play the political game.

Once you get used to it, you may even begin to enjoy it.

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