Office politics: playing the game

Nov 01 2006 by Rob Yeung Print This Article

Office politics matter. If you think you can succeed at work without getting political, you need to wake up. Politicking happens whether you like it or not, so you might as well learn the right buttons to push to influence others more effectively.

Working life sucks. Let's be honest here. Bad stuff can happen to good people. Bright, smart, hard-working souls who try to do a good job often end up getting walked over, trodden on, beaten down. And arrogant, nasty, vindictive types often seem to have a fast-track ticket that allows them to rise straight to the top. But you didn't need me to tell you that. I bet you can think of a dozen instances where you have seen precisely that happen.

But why does it go on in the first place?

Because business is about competition. Some of it is subtle and unspoken, but nearly everyone is competing for budgets, opportunities to work on more exciting projects, customers, or resources. And then there's competition for promotions, time with important colleagues, prestige, recognition, bigger salaries, and, of course, power. But the very fact that people do plot and scheme at work illustrates one of the truths of politicking – that it delivers results.

While we're at it, here's another home truth – politicking happens whether you like it or not. Yes, some people try to be noble and refuse to play the political game; they focus on their jobs and work hard in the hopes of being noticed and rewarded for their efforts.

But sadly there are limited opportunities in the world of work and, more often than not, these sorts of people just end up being overlooked or ignored – either by colleagues or important customers or both. Do you want to be overlooked or ignored?

Of course not.

You'd think that would be a silly question – whether anyone would choose to be overlooked or ignored. But too many people try in vain to get ahead without playing the political game. I coach managers across a lot of businesses, and this is always the first point that needs hammering home. If you can find the right buttons to push, your colleagues and customers will give you pretty much whatever you want. If you think you can succeed without getting political, you need to wake up. Wake up and smell that coffee.

Because people at work can broadly be divided up into two camps. Of course there are shades of grey, but let's simplify to make the point.

On the one hand, we have the purists, the people who focus on their work. They dislike politics and try to work hard. They may be very good at their jobs and work honestly and diligently – if somewhat naively. They follow rules and regulations, trying to do what is "fair" or "right" and feel frustrated when decisions are not "fair" or "right".

Nice does not mean nice, it often ends up meaning loser
They are nice guys, but I'm afraid nice does not mean nice, it often ends up meaning loser. And because they refuse to play politics, they get taken advantage of. They end up as organisational martyrs, moaning about the unfairness of life but never doing anything about it.

On the other hand, we have the players. And the players are the very opposite of purists. While they respect official rules and regulations, they understand that the unofficial rules of politics are often more important. They realise that decisions are rarely "fair" or "right" and that decision makers have both personal as well as professional buttons that need to be pressed. Okay, they may not always be the very best at their day-to-day jobs, but their connections and influence help them to vault up the career ladder over their purist colleagues.

Many purists refuse to play the political game, believing it to require underhand tactics and a malicious intent. But politics are not automatically bad. Politicking merely describes the act of scrutinising business relationships and learning how to influence others more effectively.

It usually involves going through informal channels rather than officially sanctioned ones, but that doesn't make it bad in and of itself.

Nor does politicking have to be selfish. You can use your understanding of politics to influence people and achieve goals that are good for the organisation as well as yourself. Even in the most friendly and supportive of organisations, people don't always agree – so having an understanding of politics and how to exert influence can help you to pull people together and achieve outcomes that are in the organisation's best interests too.

Try to manipulate and use people and you will probably get caught. You could be tarnished with the label of being "political", which can make people refuse to trust you or want to listen to you again. So effective politicking has to be as much about give as it is about take.

So. Play the game. Or get left behind. Which are you going to do?

About The Author

Rob Yeung
Rob Yeung

Dr Rob Yeung is a Director and executive coach at leadership consulting firm Talentspace. He is the author of over a dozen career and management books including How to Win and I is for Influence.