The Gorilla in the Room
When I first started out, I thought—I’ll work hard and be nice to people and I’ll be okay. Boy, was I naive. I never even saw the wheeling and dealing, and when my review came, I was out on my butt.
Horror stories about office politics would fill many a book. It’s a rare workplace that completely escapes the toxic touch of scheming cliques, backstabbing and favoritism. In many companies, who you know and how well you play the game decides whether you keep your job or get laid off, get promoted or passed over, receive a fat raise or a puny cost-of-living increase.
As for trying to ignore or avoid office politics—burying your head in the sand may offer little or no protection from the gorilla in the room. To better protect your job security, financial well-being and workday peace of mind, let’s take a closer look at the blood sport called office politics.
We’ll start by sizing up your workplace. Answer the following honestly:
• Which counts for more—kissing up or how well you do the job when it comes to promotions, raises, time off, perks and plum assignments? Do job security and rewards depend more on political skills or performance?
• Do supervisors and co-workers interact comfortably and treat each other with respect, or do you work on a "Survivor" island where the motto is, “It’s a jungle out there!”
• Are co-workers timid and fearful when they interact and communicate, like soldiers crossing a battlefield strewn with mines and booby-traps?
• Does your supervisor or boss show favoritism to people of his or her gender, ethnicity, race, religion or political views?
• Are there cliques where you work? In-groups that scheme, exclude and gossip to further their agenda, gain influence and power?
• Are co-workers stingy or generous with the information and help that you need to do your job?
• Are employees unhappy and on edge? Is there a lot of grumbling over unfair treatment? Is turnover high because employees jump ship to escape a pressure cooker atmosphere?
Office politics boils down to people, so let’s start with you. Are you a “political animal” or a “babe in the woods?” Political animals are definitely not naive. They know what’s what and have an instinct for power, advantage and manipulation. People are probably born with political instincts or develop them during childhood. A babe in the woods is naive and unaware as he or she toddles through the jungle of office politics. This unworldly innocent may survive okay among the bears and wolves if they do their job well and are likeable. The danger occurs when they have something somebody wants.
Here are a few political types you may remember from your school days:
• The Charmer: In school, the apple polisher buttered up the teacher; now he’s trying to gain approval from the boss. The charmer is usually outgoing, a good talker and often a showoff. An ambitious, charismatic charmer with great political instincts is hard to beat.
• The Clique-ster: It’s amazing how they hone in on one another...and poof! You’ve got a clique. Clique-sters love to exclude outsiders and spend much time and energy gossiping. They scheme to achieve an agenda, mainly to hog rewards and recognition.
• The Shark. This ambitious predator tends to be cold-blooded and have a sharp tongue, well equipped to cut people down. He may be a bully, as well as power-hungry, amoral, ruthless. A shark may cultivate you if they think you can be useful. But don’t take it personally when you’re dumped...it’s just business.
All natural politicians know right away who’s on top in the power structure. They flatter superiors, promote themselves, and may take credit for the work of others. When they screw up, they may try to pin the blame on a fall guy. Can you identify the babes in the woods, political animals, charmers, clique-sters and sharks where you work?
“I don’t want to claw my way to the top and I’m not particularly tough or crafty! The politics where I work drives me nuts. Help!” You’re in the game, whether you like it or not. Try the following survival techniques:
• Become a student of office politics. Remember, the political instinct is as ingrained in human beings as Mother Love and the reproductive drive. If you can gain some perspective, you won’t be so sensitive or moralistic. Understanding the human animal makes life in the zoo safer and easier.
• Be discreet. At the water cooler, over lunch, on the phone, in your e-mails. Don’t spread gossip, however juicy, or talk about others.
• Be helpful to your co-workers and boss. A willingness to help makes you likeable and non-threatening.
• Birds of a feather really do flock together. Make friends. Your pals will say nice things about you behind your back, defend you to others, and warn you if some sleaze puts you in his crosshairs.
• For God’s sake, be loyal to your friends, allies and supporters. Don’t make fun of them or criticize them behind their backs, even as a joke.
• Be democratic with your respect and courtesy. Treat everyone in the workplace as evenhandedly as possible. You’ll build a good public image that will go around and come around.
• Distance yourself mentally from the battle. Remember that people don’t always socialize to get to know the real you. There may be an agenda. So don’t be naive, but remember, they’re still just people.
• Keep one eye open for a mentor. Maybe a senior management person or the person whose empire you’re in. Be friendly to them, ask their advice, admire them. That’s one way to earn opportunities and support.
• Are you perhaps a competent loner who lacks a network and doesn’t manage power well? High-quality performance can sometimes trump politics. Don’t be shy about blowing your own horn and get in the habit of documenting your accomplishments.
• Very important: Be loyal and help your boss succeed!
• What if you’re caught in a political combat zone and feel you must get out to save your sanity? First, try to transfer to another section, department or supervisor where you’ll be happier. If that doesn’t work, start actively job hunting. You’re not just looking for a paycheck. You want a workplace where the office politics match your personality, work goals and basic values. If you get a shot at a job where the work or salary are great but you’ll need the combat skills of a samurai warrior to succeed, is that the job for you? Probably not.
Finally, when interviewing, don’t be shy about showing your cards—your values—to the interviewer. If a prospective employer sees you as a kindred spirit who shares his or her values, a bond of respect and understanding springs up. What a great impression to make on your future boss!
Burt Wetanson is a freelance writer who has contributed over 60 articles to Working World. His goal: “To give readers practical tools for success in the tough LA career market.”