On the Clock

The Art of Office Politics

Mastering these skills doesn’t mean turning into Francis Underwood.

A few years ago, a bright and talented manager got a rude awakening. She realized she was being excluded from important meetings, and increasingly left out of the larger organizational loop. “She didn’t understand why she was being cut out of meetings,” says Kathleen Robinson, a Boston career coach who worked with the manager. “But it was all about politics.”

Thoughts of office politics often drum up images of fake schmoozing, deals solidified in backrooms, or subterfuge. But they’re really about being savvy at communication—chatting up colleagues and bosses and sharing information with appropriate comrades, whether to get them on your side or figure out where they stand. And they’re critical in most organizations, for everything from getting a project approved to advancing to the C-suite. A survey from Korn Ferry found that 24% of respondents believed they didn’t get a promotion because of office politics. “Understanding who the influencers are in your office and your company is important,” says John Petzold, senior client partner and CXO Optimization lead at Korn Ferry.

Office politics are really about being savvy at communication.

Of course, not all politics are the same. “If you’re trying to get ahead at someone else’s expense, that’s bad,” says Robert Kaiser, who heads Kaiser Leadership Solutions in Greensboro, North Carolina. “But it’s different if it’s about your own agenda and the organization’s fit. You want to play in the sweet spot of where they overlap.” Here’s how to find that sweet spot.

Get acquainted with the four aptitudes.

Many management experts point to four skills that are crucial to playing office politics: social astuteness, or being able to read people and understand how they perceive you; your ability to influence others; networking savvy to build mutually beneficial relationships with people who can provide backing when you need it; and sincerity, or how honest others perceive you to be. Not having these skills can hurt otherwise intelligent, hard-working people—and prevent them from moving up.

Watch and learn.

In every organization, there are usually a handful of people who make decisions, and a process by which those decisions are made. Is the CEO the arbiter of major decisions, or does she seem to let things play out among her C-suite? Listening during important conversations you’re able to sit in on, and asking trusted colleagues about the structure of the organization can help you understand who the key decision makers are. Once you’ve identified those influencers, you can begin to study how they operate. “We have a lot of people to answer to, so I always pretend like it’s high school,” Petzold says. “You can’t show up to class and tell your geometry teacher you didn’t do your homework because you had history homework. You have to make each of your many leaders feel like they’re the most important.”

Build alliances.

A key to office politics is forming alliances that offer quid pro quos. “Never ask a favor without offering one in return,” Kaiser says. It’s paramount to make it clear to potential allies that your agenda is aligned in some way with theirs. Here’s an example: One of Kaiser’s clients, a head of global equity for a pharmaceutical company, needed to push through an initiative regarding product contamination. She started with the head of global operations, making her case for increasing her head count to ensure quality control. He asked what she was willing to give up, and she offered up cost cuts. Then she approached the global head of manufacturing, who wasn’t particularly concerned about quality, but needed an ally to speak up for extra resources. If he helped her with the current budget cycle, she’d reduce her overhead for the next one to benefit his department. 

Know when to back down.

One of the biggest mistakes made in playing office politics is not recognizing when it’s a lost cause. Pushing your agenda will only go so far, and trying to jam something through can only damage your office reputation and use up much of your goodwill. Career pros say it’s just as important to know when to back down, instead of becoming known as the perennial naysayer or, worse, the office bully. Acknowledge the loss and move on to your next political encounter.

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