Get Ahead, Gain Influence, Get What You Want Office politics are an unavoidable fact of life in every workplace. To accomplish your personal and business goals, you must learn to successfully play the political game in your organization. Whether you are a new player or a seasoned veteran, Secrets to Winning at Office Politics can help you increase your personal power without compromising your integrity or taking advantage of others. This smart, practical guide shows you how to stop wasting energy on things you can’t change and start taking steps to get what you want.
Written by an organizational psychologist and corporate consultant, Marie G. McIntyre’s Secrets to Winning at Office Politics uses real-life examples of political winners and losers to illustrate the behaviors that contribute to success or failure at work. You will be shown techniques for managing your boss more effectively, improving your influence skills, changing the way you are perceived, and dealing with difficult people.
Using these proven strategies for political success, you will then be able to create a Political Game Plan that outlines the steps necessary to accomplish your own individual goals.
Politics Is Not a Dirty Word
Playing politics is like having sex. Almost everybody does it, but nobody is comfortable discussing exactly what they do. We will talk for hours, however, about what other people might be doing. Typically, we use the term “playing politics” only to describe our colleagues’ behavior—never our own. They are sucking up, scheming, and manipulating, but we are building relationships, developing strategies, and opening communication channels. Many people feel that playing the political game involves devious plotting or blatant self-promotion.
But in reality, “politics” is what naturally happens whenever people with different goals, interests, and personalities try to work together. We are all continuously engaged in political transactions throughout the normal course of every workday. The process itself is neither good nor bad, but simply a fact of life—and the morality of the outcome is determined entirely by the motives and goals of the players. Both Hitler and Mother Teresa might be considered “politically adept,” but their results are judged rather differently.
HOW DO YOU WIN AT POLITICS?
The political side of work quickly becomes apparent as soon as we take our first job. To succeed, we not only have to do outstanding work, but we also have to deal with quirky bosses and annoying co-workers. Colleagues get defensive when we point out their mistakes, unscrupulous rivals try to stab us in the back, and managers make decisions that seem totally unfair—or completely idiotic.
Learning to deal with these realities, and succeed in spite of them, constitutes our on-the-job political education. Every office is a playing field for the game of politics. And when you take a job, you’re automatically a player. Kelly learned this lesson the hard way.
After graduating from college with a marketing degree, she accepted an administrative assistant position in the marketing department of a large corporation, viewing it as a temporary step toward her professional career. But as the months passed, Kelly became increasingly discouraged. Every time she applied for a promotion, she was rejected, with no clear explanation of the reason. Finally, feeling trapped and desperate, she went to her boss and asked for some honest feedback. Much to her surprise, Kelly learned that people viewed her as egotistical and arrogant—the unanticipated result of her desire to get into a marketing position.
Striving to be noticed by management, Kelly had tried to demonstrate her superior knowledge and skills at every opportunity, but this tactic had backfired. Her condescending manner completely alienated the other assistants, who quickly spread the word that she was difficult to work with, thereby killing her chances of being promoted. Kelly was stunned by the feedback—but her political education had begun.
In her eagerness to succeed, Kelly made a common mistake: she failed to realize that managing the political environment is just as important as managing tasks and responsibilities.
WHAT DO YOU WANT?
If you took a poll and asked people why they work, what do you think they would say? Money is usually the first reason that comes to mind, but in addition to financial security, work provides many other benefits: we can learn new skills, interact with congenial people, take pride in accomplishments, and identify with a meaningful purpose.
Although we complain about our jobs and dream about vacations, most of us get a lot more from work than just a paycheck. Let’s consider two people who represent opposite extremes in their political goals. First we have Sergio, a young sales manager who knows exactly how he wants his entire career to unfold.
Sergio likes the company he works for and hopes to stay there. He has a plan: first, transfer to a position with a larger sales territory, then apply for a regional director job, with the ultimate goal of becoming vice president for North American sales—and CEO wouldn’t be out of the question. Sergio is clearly an ambitious, goaldriven guy.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A GOAL AND A WISH
When we are having problems at work, we often think in terms of wishes, not goals.
“I wish that I could make more money.” “I wish I had gotten that promotion in stead of Susan.” “I wish th at my boss wasn’t such a moron.” “I wish my employees would pay attentio n to deadlines.” “I wish a he adhunter would call and offer me a job.”
Political Games: Moves and Countermoves
Ted and Russell were playing a game. Although no one ever announced that a game was under way, all the spectators knew it was on. This game did not have a name or a list of rules, but it did have two opponents and a set pattern of moves. Here’s how the game evolved:
For many years, Ted had been a human resources director in the largest division of a Southern manufacturing company. Russell, who came from a company in another state, was hired as the new corporate vice president of human resources, thereby becoming Ted’s boss. Shortly after Russell arrived, Ted began making pointed remarks about “outsiders who don’t understand the company culture”—and thus the game began. Russell’s team included the CEO, who had hired him, while Ted’s team included the president, a longtime mentor. Over a two-year period, these major moves occurred:
- Soon after joining the company, Russell implemented several new policies that changed longstanding company practices.
- 2. Ted, with the president’s approval, indicated that he would not be implementing some of Russell’s new policies in his division.
- 3. Russell, with the CEO’s approval, reorganized the human resources department. Ted retained his title and salary but lost most of his staff.
- 4. Ted was appointed by the president to lead a major project that would normally have been given to the vice president. This was a public humiliation for Russell.
- 5. Russell contacted an executive recruiter who was also an old friend. The friend arranged for Ted to be offered a higher-paying position in upstate New York.
- 6. Ted, who had always lived in the South, excitedly accepted the job, moved to New York, and was absolutely miserable in the cold and snow. He never found out that Russell had instigated the job offer. Russell privately declared himself the winner of the game.
During the entire course of this game, no one ever saw Ted and Russell get into an argument or exchange a crossword. In meetings, they were frequently seen smiling and joking with each other. Yet everyone around them knew that a serious game was in progress.
HOW DO YOU KNOW IT’S A GAME?
Political maneuvering is part of the ebb and flow of office life, but games have a specific purpose. A truly malicious game will escalate office politics to an entirely different level. Here are a few signs that can help you spot a game in progress:
• The players’ actions have an identifiable pattern. Once you spot the pattern, the moves are always predictable. In the Ted/Russell game, the pattern clearly involved mutual attempts at sabotage and retaliation.
• The behavior has an emotional payoff. Political games are played for emotional rewards. Each time they made a winning move, Ted and Russell enjoyed feeling dominant and in control, while making the other party feel humiliated and powerless.
• True motives are never stated. Political game players always have a socially acceptable explanation for everything they do. Ted and Russell articulated sound, logical business reasons for each decision they made, although the hidden agenda was obvious to anyone paying attention.
• There is always a winner and sometimes a loser. The purpose of any political game is to help the player come out ahead. Sometimes, though not always, there is an opponent who must be defeated or humiliated. After each move in the Ted/Russell game, one felt like a winner and the other a loser. Ironically, even though Russell made the ultimate winning move, Ted never knew about it. He just thought that he was leaving the playing field.
• Any attempt to change the game is met with resistance. Players will oppose anyone who tries to break the game’s pattern because they don’t want to lose the emotional payoff. If their behavior seems silly or self-defeating, keep in mind that emotional reactions can seldom be understood with logical analysis (although emotions do have a logic of their own). Several well-meaning colleagues tried to help Ted and Russell resolve their differences for the good of the department, but both were too focused on revenge to care about any higher purpose. The most common political games fall into three categories: Power Games, Ego Games, and Escape Games. Keep in mind that these popular pastimes are hardly limited to the workplace. We often play them with family and friends as well!
The Suck-Up Game: “I think you’re wonderful, so you have to like me.”
Eduardo, a regional director, was meeting with Albert, one of his district managers. “So what do you think about this new marketing proposal?” said Eduardo. “Great idea, boss!” exclaimed Albert. “Your plan should send our sales right through the roof!” “See any problems at all?” Eduardo asked. “Nope, it looks perfect to me,” Albert replied. “Can’t wait to get started on it.” At his next staff meeting, Albert shared Eduardo’s marketing proposal with the sales staff. “But how will we ever find time for this?” asked one of the salespeople. “We’re short-staffed as it is. Putting all this effort into business development is going to keep us from servicing our current customers. We may wind up actually losing business.” “I know it’s a problem,” said Albert. “But you’ll just have to find the time. That’s what the boss wants, so that’s what we’re going to do” “But did you talk to Eduardo about the potential problems with this plan?” asked another salesperson. “Does he know the risks?”
“I’m not here to criticize management’s ideas. I’m here to make them work,” Albert replied. “You know my motto: ‘Keeping the boss happy is job one.’ So we’re just going to have figure out how to do this.”
Recognizing the Pattern: Suck-Up players direct all their energy upward. They shower managers with compliments, frequently request their guidance, and never openly disagree with them. Advanced players actively seek out opportunities to stroke the egos of important executives.
The Emotional Payoff: “I feel safe when people in power like me.” P itfalls for Players: (1) Colleagues generally think that Suck-Up players are useless, so they seldom have allies among their peers; (2) when problems occur unexpectedly, managers can become quite unhappy with Suck-Ups who concealed the bad news and failed to provide a warning; (3) if they acquire a manager who wants unfiltered opinions and honest feedback, Suck-Up players are out of luck.
Exposing the Game. You can often disrupt a game by describing the pattern that you have observed or sharing your thoughts about the player’s underlying motives. In private conversations with Suck-Ups, the game can be directly exposed by stating your observations: “Albert, I’ve noticed that in meetings you always agree with Eduardo. You seem reluctant to express any concerns.” But if you and the Suck-Up player are in a public setting, asking questions is a less confrontational strategy: “Albert, when we talked about this yesterday, you indicated some concern about the cost. Could you share those thoughts with Eduardo?”
Countermoves: Countermoves are designed to break the pattern of a game, allowing you to get back on a more productive track. With Suck-Up players, the game is generally more annoying than harmful, unless your management is unusually susceptible to flattery. Problems do arise, however, when sucking up prevents the sharing of complete information or honest opinions. Countermoves should, therefore, be focused on encouraging more candid discussions.
The Control Game: “You can’t tell me what to do.”
“You’d better watch out,” said Sherry’s colleague. “I hear that Matt is playing golf with your boss again this weekend.” That news sent Sherry into an immediate depression. Ever since he was transferred into her department, Matt had made it quite clear that he had no respect for Sherry and believed he should have her job. He constantly argued with her, frequently ignored her requests for information, and seldom consulted her about any aspect of his work. And now he seemed to be cultivating her boss, occasionally eating lunch with him or joining him for golf outings. “I know that I should do something about this situation,” Sherry said to her friend, “but talking to Matt is so unpleasant that it’s easier to just leave him alone.”
Increasing Your Political Power
When you think about your own political situation, you probably have something in mind that you would like to accomplish. Perhaps you hope to achieve certain career objectives or resolve some dilemma at work that is driving you crazy. Or maybe both. Whatever your current concerns, here’s an important fact to keep in mind:
To achieve any goal, you must have sufficient
Having a sense of power is important because people who feel powerless almost always feel hopeless and trapped as well. Hopeless, trapped people don’t contribute much to the greater good; they typically spend a lot of time wishing things would change, but seldom set any specific goals. If you need help differentiating an unrealistic wish from a realistic goal, try a political power check. For instance, you might wish with all your heart that you could get rid of your boss, but you probably don’t have the power to pull it off.
However, you almost certainly have the power to make that relationship better if you choose to do so. Dumping your boss is a wish; improving communication with your boss would be a goal. Enhancing your political power will automatically increase the number and variety of goals that you are able to achieve. If you are a Winner, the desire to increase your power is not merely self-serving, since you will always be working for the success of the business.
Having a sense of power is important because people who feel powerless almost always feel hopeless and trapped as well. Hopeless, trapped people don’t contribute much to the greater good; they typically spend a lot of time wishing things would change, but seldom set any specific goals.
If you need help differentiating an unrealistic wish from a realistic goal, try a political power check. For instance, you might wish with all your heart that you could get rid of your boss, but you probably don’t have the power to pull it off. However, you almost certainly have the power to make that relationship better if you choose to do so.
Dumping your boss is a wish; improving communication with your boss would be a goal. Enhancing your political power will automatically increase the number and variety of goals that you are able to achieve. If you are a Winner, the desire to increase your power is not merely self-serving, since you will always be working for the success of the business.