How to Survive Office Politics

In many situations in our daily lives, even within our families, we have all at some point in our lives, for many reasons, taken a decision or action that did not reflect our true position on a particular issue to serve a purpose; whether base or idealistic.

As kids many of us knew which parent to go to when we hungered for a treat that was not allowed by the stricter parent.

As adults, the pressure to be on the right side of the situation, sometimes personified by whoever holds the power, as opposed to doing the right thing, is sometimes so overwhelming that it causes us tremendous stress due to the inner conflict we suffer.

To reduce or avoid that stress, we follow the path of resistance, often finding ourselves, having to play both ends against the middle. With friends and relatives, we may choose to do this to maintain our relationships with them.

In long term, personal relationships, the imperative to compromise for our significant other, sometimes is the glue that holds the relationship together. When that glue weakens or is rubbed off, the relationship dies.

When we engage in activities that lead to a change in government or the administration of the commonwealth, we are driven by the desire to see a change that serves our personal however narrow.

At work, the existential pressure of paying bills creates a more powerful pressure to make decisions or take actions that may not reflect our true position on issues.  In order to remain on the good side of our warring friends and colleagues, we often take actions and say things that will help us avoid hurting their feelings and retain their friendship.

The received wisdom is it would be bad for our career prospects to take sides especially when the warring parties are your superiors. It is even harder to say “No” to our bosses or one of the senior corporate leaders because we are mindful of the negative impact to our careers and ability to continue paying our bills. In other words, we try to take a ‘smart” decision in the interest of keeping our job as doing otherwise, is what we lovingly call a “Career Limiting Move (CLM).”

The common thread in all these situations is that we seek to protect our self-interest, because it is in our nature and is oftentimes a survival strategy. Politics is inevitable, pervasive, and can’t be avoided.

Aristotle, the Greek philosopher described this type of behavior as politics and famously said, “human beings are by nature political animals.” Over time, politics or the act of playing politics has become synonymous with negative antisocial behavior.  A quick browse of synonyms playing politics in returned the following words,” deceitful”, “duplicitous”, “fraudulent”, “insidious”, “insincere”, “shrewd”, “sneaky”, and “wily.” None of these words connotes positive behaviors.

I would stress though, that politics is not all negative. In fact, within the context of this article, it is simply behaviors we exhibit to influence positive constructive outcomes albeit in our self-interest to improve our chances of surviving in the jungle of the corporate world.

This approach is more wholesome and draws from the foundation set by creating and maintaining your personal brand.  It is best to embrace this type of political behavior as a business tool that paves the road to your heights of your career. When applied correctly, it helps you to:

  • Influence and manage people’s perception of you and your ideas
  • Convert enemies into allies
  • Manage outcomes before people judge you with them
  • Have your ideas heard and know how to present them; and
  • Stay in the loop of the major decisions and actions that could impact your career.

In the next few sections, I will share 5 tips on how to navigate and succeed at politics in the corporate world. These insights are a mix of my personal, sometimes painful, experience and observations and existing literature on the topic.

Tip 1 – Study the Corporate Culture

This is a prerequisite. It takes a bit of time to figure this out especially at large, complex organizations where there are many subcultures across the divisions and business groups. Since all politics is local, the best way is to start within the team and branch out to the broader group that rolls up to the executive. Your boss may not have all the time to brief you about the corporate culture and things to avoid doing but will be willing to provide clarification, advice and guidance to your specific questions, concerns and observations Fit in, to the extent that you are comfortable as long as it does not conflict with your core personal beliefs. I would suggest that you discuss with your manager before you respectfully decline participation in various social activities in the company. This way your manager will be your shield

Discuss Conduct a stakeholder analysis and the messaging that each would require if you ever d be in front of them.

Tip 2 – Manage Your Boss to Manage You Better

Have open conversations with your boss about expectations on the job and maintain touchpoints to ensure that as corporate priorities and objectives change, your boss keeps you in the loop. This will help you make your boss look in front of your boss’ boss, peers, and other bosses. If you are a people manager, do the same thing. When your team does well, it makes you look good and your boss is happy. Word gets around about you and would be mostly positive.

Tip 3 – Actively Listen and Spread Your Influence

Empathy and compassion facilitate effective relationships.  However, to be able to do this, you need to understand yourself first. Your needs, attitudes, belief systems, and habits affect how you relate with others and navigate the political environment. The way you act under pressure and stress accentuates these attributes and, if not managed properly, is a potential detractor on your quest to fit in and influence your colleagues to work with you.

Your ability to be and stay in touch with your inner self and self-manage enable you to understand what others are going through and helps you remain present when interacting with colleagues who are themselves undergoing tremendous stress and pressure. This will also help you avoid burnout due to long periods of stress and anxiety.

By listening attentively with empathy, compassion, and without judgment – not merely waiting for an opportunity to speak – you create an open, inclusive environment free from biases, harassment and discrimination that draws people to you and makes you.

This leads to positive perceptions about you as a team player and someone people gravitate to when they need someone to work with on special projects and other cross functional tasks and activities.

Tip 4 – Become a Trusted Advisor

To achieve this status, you need to develop a reputation as someone with integrity. Your word has to literally be your bond. People need to see your transparency and lack of ulterior motive to believe and take you at face value when it comes to providing ideas and solutions to colleagues. Salespeople are unfortunately negatively stereotyped with many unsavory attributes that are antithetical to those needed to become a Trusted Advisor.  You have to show that you are sincere through your words, actions and the delivering commitments to which you had agreed.

Tip 5 – Network Strategically

This cannot be overstated. Do not wait until you need something from a colleague before you connect with them. Be open to working on different tasks, helping others and asking for help, too. The latter is often overlooked and wrongly perceived as a sign of weakness or worse, incompetence. The benefit of asking for help is that it allows people to do something for you and makes them feel better about themselves at the same time. You will be amazed at how much people want to help.

LinkedIn and other social media platforms are also good places to network. Connect with your peers and senior colleagues. Maintain your visibility on the appropriate social media platform and ensure that your posts and other activities will not be embarrassing or cast your employer in a negative light.

Within most organizations, there are some Employee Resource Groups (ESG) that are great places to connect with other colleagues. These are social communities run by employees based on shared identity or experience or some other unifying theme that are designed to provide support to employees in terms of their personal and professional goals within the organization, including deepening your understanding and knowledge of the culture and the key stakeholders.

In conclusion, always remember to maintain a healthy work-life balance and know your limits and what you are comfortable doing to fit in and influence. Be true to yourself as authenticity is the only way you can truly become and remain a trusted advisor which in turn affords you the platform to positively influence outcomes in your work place.

We value your comments and feedback! Use the comment box to let us know your thoughts. Thanks.


Ernest Onuorah, MBA, is a financial services risk consultant, author, speaker, and career coach. He had worked at consulting and financial service firms including PWC, TD, RBC, BMO, and Home Trust Company, where he was AVP, Enterprise Risk Management. He holds the CRISC, FRM and CRM designations. He can be reached at [email protected].

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