Eric’s Blog

“Surviving Office Politics”

The first rule of office politics is also the simplest: stay out. In business, you’ve got to survive to succeed. If you play politics, eventually you will end up on the wrong side.

Unfortunately, office politics is a fact of life, and it will affect any good businessperson from time to time. Even if you don’t play politics (always the best way), other people do.

For most of them, playing political games is a way to disguise what they lack. Playing politics is often a cover for someone who isn’t very good at anything else. Others like to play politics for sport, or because they may enjoy hurting people.

If someone is playing a political game at your expense, and trying to hurt you or damage your reputation, how do you handle it? The first suggestion is to simply ignore it.

If you’re outstanding at your job, people will always talk about you, good and bad. A good manager or employee isn’t hurt by rumor and backstabbing. The truth usually comes out. When it does, it’s the backstabber who looks bad.

Ignoring backstabbing has another advantage – it’s confusing and frustrating for an adversary who is used to getting what he or she wants by playing games. If you can ignore it, do it.

Protecting yourself from political games:

  1. Don’t play politics. You’ll end up on the losing side eventually. Be friendly and helpful to everyone as much as possible. Don’t take sides.
  2. Maintain and build on your reputation. Your best defense is always your skill, productivity, and team spirit. If you’re doing a good job, you’re tougher to bring down.
  3. Make sure your boss and the people you respect see what you are doing and appreciate your value.
  4. Know who your friends are. Identify a few people you admire and trust. Help and support them whenever you can. If someone is trying to hurt you, ask your friends for help and advice.
  5. Cultivate a few influential people. Identify those higher up in the organization who share your values and you admire and respect. Get to know them better and seek out their advice often. Take their advice and let them know how it worked out. Help them in return if you can. Let them know they can rely on you. These people will be important allies if you get into trouble.
  6. Support promising young people in the organization. You never know whom you might be working for someday.

If you must react, here’s how:

Inevitably, in any competitive business, office politics come into play. If you are affected, and you feel you can’t ignore what’s happening, you must react.

The key to reacting appropriately is understanding your adversary. People play political games for different reasons, but their motivations are usually the same – jealously, revenge, self-promotion, or trying to draw attention away from their own weaknesses or mistakes.

Occasionally there’s even the “Iago” figure (from Shakespeare) – someone who harbors deep resentments and enjoys hurting people for sport.

If you’re the target of someone on your level or slightly above you in the hierarchy, try ignoring it as mentioned above. If you feel you must defend yourself, by far the best way is to confront the person directly.

How you confront them is the key. Under no circumstances do it in public, or where you can be overheard. Instead, approach the person and ask politely if you can speak to them in private.

Go into an office or conference room and shut the door. Then ask, directly, in a businesslike and unemotional way, “Do you have a problem with me?” This gives the person a chance to say what’s on their mind, and maybe it will be the beginning of a good conversation. But chances are the person who has been talking behind your back won’t be comfortable when confronted face to face.

Tell the person, if they do have a problem with you, you’d prefer to talk about it with them behind closed doors, as you are doing now. This is usually enough to put the person on notice that there is a price to be paid for dragging you into political games.

What if your boss is the one playing politics?

If your boss is playing politics with you, that’s a different matter entirely. Bosses must be handled much more carefully if your intention is to survive in the organization.

It’s unlikely your boss will be jealous of you, seeking revenge, or trying to make him or herself look good at your expense.

When bosses play political games, it’s more likely they believe you have failed them in some way. Or they simply don’t like you.

If your boss doesn’t like you, it’s personal and there’s not much you can do about that. If he or she is actively trying to get rid of you, the only thing that might be able to save you is the goodwill you have built up in the organization.

That’s why maintaining high standards of work product and productivity is so important for political survival. It’s one of the few defenses that might work against a personal attack from a superior.

Go to those influential people you have been cultivating all those years and talk it over with them confidentially. They might be willing to give you some insight into your boss’s thinking, and in some cases, even willing to intercede on your behalf. At the very least they will realize someone they like and rely on is being threatened.

Word will get around. Other managers on your boss’s level might start asking themselves why your boss is trying to pressure such a good employee. Bosses care about their reputations as much or more than anyone and this might give you a little bargaining power.

But if your boss is determined to get rid of you, realistically there’s very little you can do to change that attitude.

If you want to keep your job, and keep working for your boss, try to defuse the situation by taking the direct approach.

Ask for a meeting with your boss. In the meeting ask him or her to tell you clearly what the problem is. Write down what your boss says. Don’t try to defend yourself or make excuses, just listen, and take notes.

Thank your boss for his time, and say you’d like to think about what he has said. After the meeting, look over the notes critically. See if your boss has a point. Your job is at stake, so it’s worth it to be tough on yourself.

Then spend some time drafting some counterpoints addressing your boss’s complaints. Don’t be defensive or offer excuses. Instead suggest concrete, practical alternatives to each point your boss raised.

Ask for another meeting with your boss. In this meeting, go through the list point by point. Be businesslike and polite. Give your boss a timeline for when the suggested changes will take place. As the timeline runs down, have more meetings with your boss and show the progress you have made, as planned in the schedule.

At the very least your boss will see you are listening to his (her) concerns and are willing to adapt your behavior. Maybe your boss will even change his (her) mind about you. Stranger things have happened.

But remember that all bosses are not worth working for, and the same goes with all companies. If you hate your boss, and you hate your job, think about making a change before the change is made for you.

If your reputation is good, you can always get a better position with a new company. After all, you’re the one you have to live with, not your boss.

The bottom line:

Don’t play politics. Rely on your reputation instead. But don’t always avoid conflict. When your standing in the firm is at stake, sometimes you must react. In office politics, it’s best to play nice. But you’ve also got to be able to bite.