Karen Darrin

You can’t avoid office politics. It’s a fact of life. You may have negative feelings about it. You may think you’re taking the high road by ignoring it. However, your lack of attention to what’s happening in the workplace can be extremely dangerous.

Office politics can be defined as the use of often underhanded methods to gain advantage in the workplace. People do this to achieve their goals, gain prestige, or seek greater influence, so that they can persuade others to share their viewpoint, access assistance or resources, or get ahead in their careers.

Avoiding office politics can sabotage your career. I know this is not good news for professionals who may believe that their work alone will get them ahead. But the reality is that it takes both great performance and political savvy to get ahead. And the good news is that political savvy is a skill, not a trait. You can learn it and you don’t need to compromise your integrity.

What does it take to be politically savvy? First and foremost, it requires you to pay attention. Understand that your work alone will not get you promoted. You must be aware of what’s going on in your company.

Here are four ways to increase your political savvy skills:

1. Understand the Informal Network

Office politics often circumvent the formal organizational structure. So, sit back and observe for a while, and then map the political power and influence in your organization, rather than people’s rank or job title.

To do this, ask yourself questions like, “Who are the real influencers?,” “Who has authority but tends not to exercise it?,” “Who is respected?,” “Who champions or mentors others?,” and “Who is the brains behind the business?”

Once you know where the power and influence lie, it’s time to examine people’s interactions and relationships to understand the informal or social networks.  Watch closely (but discreetly and respectfully) to find out who gets along with who, and who finds it more difficult to interact with others. Look for in-groups, out-groups or cliques. Notice whether connections are based on friendship, respect, romance, or something else. Try to decipher how influence flows between the parties, and whether there are any interpersonal conflicts.

2. Build Your Network

Now that you know how existing relationships work, you can start to build your own social network. Look beyond your immediate team, and across the formal hierarchy in all directions – co-workers, managers and executives. Don’t be afraid of politically powerful people. Instead, get to know them, and build high-quality connections that avoid empty flattery.

High-quality connections are interactions that make you feel engaged, open, motivated, and revitalized. They are not necessarily dependent on close relationships – a quick message or a simple exchange in a meeting can be high quality if it makes both participants feel valued. Whenever your connections are high quality, you can transform a conversation into one that benefits everyone.

3. Be Brave – but Not Naive

Your first instinct may be to keep your distance from people who practice “bad” politics. In fact, the opposite can be more effective. The expression, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” often applies to being politically savvy.

Get to know the gossips and manipulators better. Be courteous but guarded, as they may repeat what you say with a negative “spin.” Try to understand their goals, so that you can avoid or counter the impact of their negative politicking. And be aware that some people behave badly because they feel insecure or have had no “positive” models of leadership. Recognize that their negative behaviors are about them, not you. Work on not taking their behavior personally.

4. Neutralize Negative Politics

You can help to make a workplace become more positive by not “fueling the fire” and joining in negative politics. For example, avoid passing on rumors without taking time to carefully consider their source, credibility and impact. And don’t rely on confidentiality. It’s safer to assume that whatever you say will be repeated, so choose carefully what “secrets” you reveal.

Remain professional at all times, and don’t take sides, or get sucked into arguments or recriminations. When a conflict arises, remember that there doesn’t have to be a winner and a loser. It’s often possible to find a solution that satisfies the majority, particularly if you take an organizational view, and not simply a personal one.

Office politics are a reality that we all have to face, and avoiding them altogether risks not having a say in what happens. It also allows people with less experience, skill or knowledge than you to influence decisions that affect you and your team. “Good” politics can help you to get what you want without harming others in the process.

It’s critical to pay attention to all of this. Don’t assume that your work alone will get you promoted. Do the best job you can. Build relationships with key stakeholders, and look out for potential landmines. That’s being political savvy.

For a deeper dive into how to be politically savvy, check out Bonnie Marcus’ website and  book, The Politics of Promotion: How High Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead (Wiley).

CALL TO ACTION:  Would you like to strengthen your political savvy skills? Let’s outline strategies together. Schedule a Free 30-min Consult or email me at karen@karendarrin.com.

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