Politics are as old as civilization and have continued to be a source of fascination since Machiavelli wrote The Prince, a treatise on how to acquire and retain power, in the 16th century.
After cutting my teeth in several advertising agencies early on in my career, I had enough office politics to last me two careers. I could never pinpoint which was more frustrating: sucking up to those in power or those in power who rewarded their flatterers. It became obvious very quickly that even the C-Suite occupants weren't immune from office politics, especially when it came to keeping clients. The AMC show Mad Men, based on agency life in the '60s, when martini lunches and pitch battles were routine, is a mild reenactment of what I saw in my early days in advertising.
Eventually I decided that being an in-house freelancer was the way to go, but even that didn't insulate me fully from the "game."
Politics are inevitable
Few managers and workers are immune to gossip, bad-mouthing, having their ideas stolen or being set up by others who want their job or status. Corporate politics exist largely because most people want to advance their careers, have job security, earn more money and get more recognition to achieve what they perceive to be their life goals. So, they gravitate to those who they feel can help them.
Often, careers are built on the personal satisfaction that may come with winning the approval and praise of their managers and executives who reward them with promotions or raises.
Conversely, when people feel alone or under-appreciated in companies of any size, they will reach out to others who feel the same way. As their numbers grow, factions develop and soon a department or even an organization can be polarized.
Career drive or career suicide?
Remember that "ladder climbers" who engage in corporate politics over the long term may forget that the person they are trying to impress today may not be around tomorrow. Witness the firing of Kevin Crull, the former Bell Media CEO. Many people close to him must now play well with his successor if they are to maintain an upward career trajectory.
Too many talented professionals have lost the respect of their teams by trying to rush up the corporate ladder too quickly. This creates stress and mistrust when colleagues wonder if the person in question is working to advance the group's cause as hard they are trying to advance their own -- by any means possible.
Neutralizing office politics
It is possible to be respectful to (and respected by) your colleagues by staying neutral. Here are some thoughts on staying focused on your performance instead of the politics that may surround you and your team:
- Lead by example: One of the best ways to keep your team productive and out of the political weeds is to behave as you would like them to behave. Be considerate, go out of your way to mentor and take an interest in their well-being. You will see a difference in how people respond to you.
- Not everyone will like you: You may be seen as insincere if you try to be everyone's friend. Remember you are not running for political office. They may not be your best friend, but you want them on board for your business strategy.
- Document everything: Keep track of events and decisions whether good or bad. Keeping accurate records removes the possibility of interpretation confusion, should it ever be required. Your documented accomplishments can come in handy at review time.
- Open communication builds trust: Schedule regular update meetings (not too many!) to share progress, or work remotely through email and other digital channels. If you have earned your team's trust, they will alert you of any underlying trends within the office culture of which you should be aware -- but not judge.
- Motivate with incentives: Take care not to inadvertently set up employees to work against one another and keep in mind that incentives should focus on the common good of the entire organization -- not just your department or team.
- Know your business: Pay close attention to announcements that come from senior management and follow your company closely in social media and the news.
- Remain visible without taking sides: Avoid office politics and stay visible and in the loop by taking leadership roles in community or charitable events where your contribution is visible without having to take sides with different factions.
- Do the "social media check": When talking about your company, competition or colleagues (past and present), pretend that everything you say will appear on social media. When you feel a session of "boss bashing" coming on, avoid it, even if you have a sympathetic audience and are having a bad day. Check the appropriateness of what you are about to say before it pops out.
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