Office Politics: How to Play the Game
Joyce Teo – Straits Times Indonesia
Hear the phrase ‘office politics’ and many will cringe. Backstabbing, bootlicking or bullying quickly come to mind.
But office politics need not be negative, and you certainly don’t have to run away from it.
In fact, Singapore-based corporate coach Jane Horan suggests that if you do, your career success could be at stake.
“Too many talented individuals are passed over for promotions, made redundant or leave organizations because they either don’t understand how to work with politics or they refuse to do so,” writes Horan.
“Instead, they put their heads down, remain invisible and work harder. And by doing so, they are the first ones on the chopping block during a redundancy, layoff or merger.”
It is time to learn some political savvy and embrace corporate politics, says Horan, who has just released a book on the power of positive workplace politics.
If you are raring to ace it, here are some tips gleaned from her book and other experts.
You have no choice, by the way. Some people dream of working in an office environment with no politics. Others aspire to. I once believed that such a place exists, but have since realized that if it does, it is not on this earth.
Where there are people, there will be politics, and you ignore it at your own peril, say human resource experts.
Paul Heng, founder and managing director at NeXT Career Consulting Group, Asia, says: “The higher up you are in the management hierarchy, the more exposed you are to politicking.”
What you can do, he adds, is to “acknowledge that it exists, and that one needs to be part of it, regardless of whether you like it or not”.
“Secondly, understand the key difference between ‘offensive’ and ‘defensive’ politics – the former harms others, the latter protects you.”
Horan tells The Straits Times that in her workshops in Singapore, the most common complaint is about “politics”.
“Yet few define what is meant by the term,” she says. “First, begin with what you believe ‘politics’ or political behavior is.”
The director of open programs and associate relations at leadership and management development institute Roffey Park, Gary Miles, says: “I think the one thing people fail to do is recognize how important politics is in organizations, and therefore think they do not need to worry about it or say, ‘I don’t do politics’.
“They think that by ignoring it or hoping it will go away, that they will be okay.”
While this strategy may work in the short term, in the long term, the situation will come back and could potentially disadvantage the individual who is ignoring it, he says.
Toot your own horn
“Many people feel uncomfortable with self-promotion – and see this as political – but is it?” challenges Horan.
“I found that when there is a merger and acquisition, for instance, and you are not networked broadly across the organization, and the organization needs to cut costs, the people that typically stay would be the vocal ones, the visible ones.”
She says people need to reframe their thinking about politics and learn how to promote themselves.
They may say: “I don’t need to toot my own horn; my work speaks for itself.”
But, she says: “With the fast pace of business, and the ever-changing globally dispersed workforce, it is difficult to let work speak for itself – you need an avenue to promote what you do.
“It is important to share what you and your team are doing – broadly – but this sharing must be with substance,” she adds.
“When you promote what the team is doing, you are actually promoting yourself.
“When you go, ‘Here I am, here’s what I am doing’, that’s not going to sound very good, but when you say, ‘I’ve done this for the company’, that’s different.”
Heng says you should “practice it to the right people, at the right platform and at the right time”.
“Do it subtly, so that not everyone knows you are doing it. In the corporate jungle, you have to be seen and heard, by the right people, at the right place, and at the right time,” he adds.
This is about how you manage what people say about you.
If you want to move to a very senior role, this would be critical, as the wrong perception of you may easily cost you a promotion, says Horan.
“For instance, if you are very detailed but not very strategic, that’s not going to be good if you’re going to be a leader.”
There are the formal channels, via reviews and appraisals, and the informal network, which may prove more valuable, she says.
Questions you have to ask include whether you are an active participant at meetings, and whether you are considered as someone with power.
Understanding power networks
A critical element of political savvy is knowing where power lies within your organization, and bearing in mind that power does not always sit in organizational charts, says Horan.
First, identify who the key players are in your organization and their interests, says Miles.
“These key players may not always be the obvious ones in terms of seniority.”
Miles also suggests that you always have your ear to the ground and network with as many people as possible.
“Keeping your personal antenna raised means that you are more likely to be able to cope with a difficult situation when it arises, because you already know some of the background information as a result of being well-networked.”
Don’t align too much with one group
It may be in power now, but a new leadership will often oust an existing one. It will then build a new team. You may thus want to consider bridging across factions for the long term.
“Bosses are often promoted, so linking your career to one individual is not always the best strategy,” says Horan.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people and they say they don’t want to talk about themselves. They may say, ‘By the way, my boss looks out for me”.
“That to me is a kiss of death, and quite naive, because bosses move on.”
These are some key tips. It does not mean that everyone should dive right in and be obsessed with it or risk being made redundant.
Take people who are about to retire and who are happy to continue doing what they do: They may just have to make sure people know what they are doing, says Horan.
But if your goal is to move up and fast, clearly you have to start practicing more positive politics.
Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times Indonesia. To subscribe to Straits Times Indonesia and/or the Jakarta Globe call 021 2553 5055.