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Office Politics: What’s Really Going On (& What You Can Do)

“I thought this was my dream job,” Mark told me as he debated whether it was time to leave his company. “But right now, I hate the office politics.”

Mark’s not alone.

Most of us get annoyed with the crazy junior high dance we call “office politics.”

But rather than shy away (’cause truthfully, they’re not going anywhere), let’s take a look at two things:

  • What’s REALLY going on when the power struggles kick up, and
  • What we can do to bring out our inner diplomat.

Why Should We Care About Office Politics, Anyway?

So many people have told me they don’t want to get involved in office politics.

Which is a perspective I totally support, except for the fact that it’s almost impossible to do.

why care about office politics

Impossible, that is, for anyone that gives a damn about their work or their organization.

Here’s why it matters: politics is all about deciding how we run things.

When you give in, you give up.

Or, as that crazy cat Plato said:

“One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”

So to be successful in your career and wear your own red cape at work, you’ve got to notice the political surroundings, and take control of your choices as to how to adapt.

YOU can decide to run things differently-—even if you’re not the top dog or big boss. Here’s how.

Step 1: Understand the ongoing political platforms

In my days as a principal in a large human resources consulting firm, I’d run into office politics like this:

  • Department A: We’ve got to plan for the big client proposal.
  • Department B: Great! I have a lot of ideas about what they need.
  • Department A: Thanks, but we’ll let you know when we’re ready for you.
  • Department B: But it’s my client, and I should lead the effort.
  • Department A: No, thanks, we’ve got it.
  • Department B: grrrrrrrrr

Over time, here’s what I discovered.

We could categorize the political conflicts into three different platforms, or areas of the most meaning:

    1. Money (who would be rewarded, and how);
    2. Recognition (who would be seen as useful); and
    3. Relationships (who trusted whom—or didn’t.).

Some really messy conflicts might combine all three.

Once you can see which platform matters to the person you’re dealing with, you can resolve conflict easily.

tally the votes for office politics

Here’s an example of how to understand what platform is at play:

  • Department A was financially rewarded on the outcome—the win. So they wanted to lead to get credit for the sale.
  • Department B was driven by the relationship, especially with ongoing clients. They can’t risk an “outsider” messing the relationship up.

Both departments valued recognition; they wanted their efforts to matter and be noticed.

Getting clear on which platforms are in play makes it easier to have open, honest conversations and help others get to solutions that help them, too.

For example, when Department B reminds Department A that their relationship capital will help finalize the sale, Department A will count them in. When Department A does their homework about the relationship and asks Department B for their insights, Department B loosens their hold.

this is just an office monkey

I’m not saying it’s always easy.

But when we take a moment to recognize the existing political platforms for the players in our companies, we can move forward to find common ground-—and better solutions.

Step 2: Get back to business basics.

I coached a marketing leader who was getting pressure from her senior exec to put a disproportionate amount of time and energy into a new business venture. This pressure caused her team to miss deadlines and sacrifice quality in their existing programs and products.

No good professional likes doing a half-ass job, and these folks were no different.

everybody wants to do a good job

As we talked, her team told me they felt resigned to just keep doing the new work without question. Not only were they frustrated, but they were creating more problems because the work they were resisting doing now was distracting from other business critical work.

But they hadn’t told the senior exec what was happening.

They’d tried to address it indirectly (“gee, we’re really busy, and the new project this is a lot of work,” etc.)–and hoped the executive would get the message.

That won’t work.

It’s time to get back-to-basics. A business basics conversation goes like this:

” Hey [LEADER’s NAME], I wanted to share some insights with you on how the work on Project X is influencing other business commitments and results.

  • As you know, you asked my team to do A, B, and C in support of Project X, which as we know is still in startup mode and not yet generating revenue.
  • A, B, and C are now taking 60% of our staff’s time, and we’re losing ground on X, Y, and Z.
  • As you know, X, Y, and Z support Project A which creates 80% of our organizations’ revenue.
  • Based on our business analysis, we need to either reduce the focus on project X or add new resources if we do not want our revenue to decrease in the next few months.

I’d like your help in creating possible solutions.”

[And then you shut up.]

A business basic conversation overrides politics at work, because it connects back to what’s most important in your organization. It creates common ground about what success looks like in your business.

(Need  to say hard things to good people? Find my scripts here.)

Step 3: Don’t get stuck in old thinking.

One of the most powerful tools you have to deal with politics at work is to be open to new approaches.

Maybe you’re actually wrong.

mind blown by the office politics

Step 4: Exchange your frustration for empathy.

No matter what you try, there will always be a person whose office politics drives you mad.

When that happens, stop. Breathe.

Remember that you can’t control their choices. You can only control three things:

  1. What you say,
  2. What you do, and
  3. What you think.

(More on these things–the core ways to take control of your career–here.)

So the next time you feel the steam coming out of your ears because of office politics, exchange your frustration for empathy and keep your mind open.

Say (or even just silently think) things like, “It’s too bad Bob can’t see another perspective. I’m sure he’s just coming from a place of habit or maybe even fear.”

Maybe that won’t make the situation go away, but it will change how you feel about it.

And eliminating a political pity party with yourself is almost as good as eliminating one with someone else.

If it’s time for more help …

A 30-minute conversation with me can help you get unstuck and move forward, fast. It’s completely confidential, safe, and easy.

Just hit the button below, and pick a date and time that’s available. If, after we talk, it sounds like one of my coaching programs or courses will help you going forward, I’ll share details after our call. There’s no pressure -my goal is to be helpful immediately.

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