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Office Politics: Playing the Game with Dignity

Sep 04, 2007

Even when you're out to get something done — not to do someone in — you have to play office politics. Fortunately, you can "play the game" ethically, getting ahead while retaining integrity.

If only the best way to get ahead were to buckle down and work harder.

Today, social dynamics is as much the ethos of office functions as it is a part of being human. Or, to paraphrase British author George Orwell: In our age, there is no such thing as "keeping out of politics."

Unfortunately, this extends into almost every workplace today. Fortunately, you can "play the game" ethically and professionally, getting ahead while retaining your integrity. Contrary to popular belief, it's not about kissing up to your boss or trying to be his or her new best friend.

Consider this a basic guide to campaigning in today's office politics.

1) If and Why to Play

"Let what's most important to you guide your actions," writes Kelly Pate Dwyer at management site BNET.

Review your top career goals and priorities. Then review the top things that have been the most time-consuming and stressful over the last year. Do they match up? If not, you may be caught up in your colleagues' goals instead of your own.

Next, prioritize your goals: "Decide what matters to you most, and think about who you'll need to persuade or influence in order to get it," Dwyer notes.

2) Observe and Listen

"The most important tools for negotiating workplace politics are your own skills of observation," writes Dwyer. "Understanding who is influential and how they do it can teach you what works, what's inappropriate, what's rewarded, and what's punished."

Moreover, a recent study commissioned by diet Coke reveals that gossiping about office politics, other colleagues and the boss is now a staple skill being deployed by career-minded Brits in order to get ahead.

Gossip around the coffeemaker can be a dirty business. You hear the boss is "working late" with his secretary? Probably best to stay out of it and not spread the news. However, not all gossip is negative — "especially if you act on what you hear rather than spreading it," notes Dwyer. Use information gleaned from office gossip to do someone a favor and odds are the favor will be returned.

Don't make others look bad. Don't criticize employees or bosses. Couch criticism in terms of an employer's professional qualities rather than making it personal.

3) Alliances and a Helping Hand

"The smartest person does not get promoted," business and career columnist Penelope Trunk recalled at BNET. "The person who helps the most relevant people gets promoted."

It's like Survivor: The Workplace: successful politics begins with creating strong relationships. In office campaigning, you need allies. So find common ground with others.

When it comes to favors, reciprocity is in full effect. Establish affiliations of mutual advantage with important people. In other words, help others get what they want in order to get what you want. "Do for others, and they're most likely to return the gesture," writes Dwyer. Show respect for your coworker to build an alliance: help by offering your expertise when you can; acknowledge his or her points of view even if you disagree; listen.

As doctors depend on nurses, don't just look upward for allies. Coworkers below and equal to your position often have the power to "support or thwart" your goals. The secretary may know tricks about how and when to approach the boss with a request.

4) Cultivating Yourself

Cultivate a positive, simple, accurate image: don't discuss personal problems; selectively self-disclose; and don't assume anything will stay secret.

Be assertive and tough when required, not aggressive. "To be assertive is to be neither a doormat nor a bully," notes Caro Handley at iVillage.co.uk. "And what's more, it's possible for anyone to learn how to do it, with a bit of effort and patience."

Be generally pleasant. This includes not moaning and whining, instead complaining to a friend over a beer after work. In the office, be kind, considerate and keep your nose clean.

Don't intimidate superiors, and try to avoid going over your superior's head.

Don't make enemies, and don't burn bridges. Fate, karma, serendipity — whatever you call it — has a funny way of bringing people back together: the "underling" you give hell today may be above you tomorrow.

5) Promoting Yourself

"I don't mean to brag, but…" Well, you should. If you don't, who will?

But do it tactfully. "Don't dwell on your shortcomings, or others will, too," notes Dwyer. Rather, look for ways to do your job better.

Dwyer writes:

Most important, remember: just because you're doing a good job doesn't mean other people realize it. To some extent, you need to get comfortable with tooting your own horn. That doesn't mean you have to brag in the break room. The key is to show, not tell.

Don't oversell, but make yourself visible and indispensable.

Dr. Rob Sarmiento at CyberPsych.com's Career Testing Center offers the following additional rules for playing office politics:

  • Keep it professional at all times.
  • Play the game being played, not the one you want or think should be played.
  • Create win/win solutions.

Force yourself to do difficult, uncomfortable or scary things, suggests Dr. Sarmiento.

"You have a choice," writes Steve Tobak, managing partner of Investor Consulting LLC, at the CNET Blog:

On the one hand, you can spend your career playing it safe, hanging back, being a "yes" man (or woman), and making sure your ass is always covered. We'll call that the "safe path." Or you can take risks, be passionate about what you believe in, speak up, stand up for what's right, and possibly commit political suicide in the process. We'll call that the "risky path."

Surviving office politics can be challenging if you are not aware of, or don't know how to play, the game. Let's face it — strategizing is a vital part of getting ahead in any work environment. But do you really want to sacrifice your soul to get ahead?

Let us know how office politics have affected your career in this week's Burning Question.

Primary Resource

How to Win at Office Politics

by Kelly Pate Dwyer

BNET, August 2007

Additional Resources

The Good Guy's (and Gal's) Guide to Office Politics

by Michael Warshaw

Fast Company, March 1998

Rules for Office Politics

by Dr. Rob Sarmiento

Career Testing Center (CyberPsych.com)

Do You Have a Dysfunctional Workplace?

by Steve Tobak

CNET Blog, Aug. 20, 2007

How to be assertive without being aggressive

by Caro Handley

iVillage.co.uk: Work & Career

Techniques of the Office Politics Masters

by Kelly Pate Dwyer

BNET