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

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“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.”

I’m writing this just weeks before the next US Presidential election. And so the issue of national politics is front and center. But long past November, office politics will remain.

So rather than shy away, let’s shine a light on them, and really understand what’s going on behind the crazy dance moves we call “office politics.”

Why Should We Care About Office Politics, Anyway?

office politics can be a brick wall | Red Cape Revolution

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 totally impossible.

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

Because 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 understand politics.

But you don’t have to play them like everyone else.

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

1. Understand the ongoing political platforms

In my days as a principal in a large human resources consulting firm, I could categorize the political conflicts into three different platforms:

  1. Money
  2. Recognition, and
  3. Values.

Some really messy conflicts might combine all three.

For example, let’s say a group disagreed about who in the organization might take the lead in a meeting or for a sales opportunity. When you looked at the problem against theses three platforms, you’d realize what was truly at stake.

  • Someone or some part of the business wanted credit for the sale (money); or
  • Someone needed the status or the exposure (recognition); and/or
  • Someone truly believed they were the stronger choice to serve the client (values, especially those of service or accomplishment.)

After getting clear on which platform was in play, it was easier to have open, honest conversations and get to conclusions rather than circle endlessly around problems.

I’m not saying it was always easy.

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

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.

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.

how to handle the office politics at work
It can be lonely out there for your leaders–and for you. Having a back-to-basics business conversation is a great antidote to office politics.

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.

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.

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 by doing things like keeping 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.switch-gears-in-your-career-cover


How can I help YOU? Email me now and let’s chat.

I also have hundreds of free tools here, plus my new guide, 3 Secret Ways to Switch Gears in Your Career is out now. Get it here.