Do You Lack in Knowledge of Office Politics?

I didn’t know how to play the politics at work nor did I want to. What I didn’t know was that if I didn’t it would cost me my job. I thought my hard work could speak for itself.

Politics, broadly defined as being able to successfully navigate the unwritten rules of “how things get done and through whom,” includes understanding the motivations of others at work and using this knowledge to influence in ways that enhance one’s personal interest and organizational objectives.

Some woman, like myself, have an adverse, almost allergic reaction, to office politics. We tend to see it as something “dirty” or dishonest, and as a stressful aspect of work that reduces our job satisfaction.

Being political contradicts many people’s belief in meritocracy. The notion that one has to do more than excel at work itself is seen as offensive to men and women alike. However, for women and other diverse groups who have to work twice as hard to counter the bias related to their gender and race, this can be experienced as an even greater insult and burden.

For people with values and morals this can seem inauthentic and devious since office politics often plays out as a “zero-sum game,” involving gossip, backstabbing, sabotaging, and even intimidation. Women, and a fair number of men, have an aversion to these tactics, and prefer power that is based on influence, relationships, and win-win approaches.

Authenticity requires discernment, courage, and self-determination. It’s not a reaction to what’s happening around you; it’s relating to the players and situation from a grounded sense of who you are. You’re more negatively affected by office politics if you don’t know what you stand for or don’t have the courage to advocate for it. To be political — and authentic — you must know what your values and intentions are so that you can move projects and teams forward in a way that aligns with you and the organization’s goals. In some ways, it’s easier for people to be against politics than it is to get clear on what they stand for and champion it.

Women are penalized for displaying political skill. Even if its unknowingly displayed. Women are judged more harshly for being assertive or competitive, two common characteristics of office politics. And, consequently, they are penalized for it.  If you don’t challenge these beliefs, you may be limiting your potential.

For the leaders with a highly valued, specialized area of expertise, it’s easy for these individuals to see how the organization depends on what they provide, but it’s less obvious to them how their work depends on others.

It’s difficult for these leaders to shift their mindset to focus on transitioning from a functional or expert mindset to an enterprise one. A mindset that enables people to connect their area of expertise to the larger business needs. In other words, to think in terms of what’s best for the whole organization, not just their small part of it.

Political behavior can be a turn-off, especially when it involves hard power tactics: coercion, intimidation, and sabotage. For many people, men and women alike, this is what “being political” means, as opposed to using softer power tactics of persuasion, building alliances, and offering assistance.  I was let go by a leader who never defined the leadership behavior she valued. Her decisions were mere reactions from her colleagues’ behavior. Because she displayed aggressive competitive behavior she created that same behavior for the people she was managing which did not make her a good leader. During her six months of employment had she have more of a “role model” mindset she could have made a conscious effort to display and create a more harmonious work environment Instead if having it out for me I may have had a chance. Then again who wants to work in such toxicity?

The mindset here is one of prioritizing growth. But this shouldn’t be done naively. It’s important to be prepared and to consider the consequences you may face. You may need to gather resources and allies, and ensure you have the support in your personal and professional life before undertaking any action. And above all, it’s important to have a Plan B, or even a Plan C in place. Consider, realistically, the penalties you may face. Do you have alternatives in mind if things don’t work out as planned? Are you prepared to switch business units or even companies if necessary?

Office politics impact your work experience and your projects, whether you participate in them or not. It’s better to be a player than a pawn. The mindset you bring to any situation, especially one that can be experienced as negative and aversive, is critical to your success.

Office politics matters because as relational beings, getting ahead is as much about people and relationships as it is about skills and experience. Your ability to participate in politics, and to employ your political skills is not just critical to career advancement, but equally important for your well-being at work.


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