Do Workplace Politics Matter?

Photo by Ingo Joseph on Pexels.com

What do you associate with the words, “workplace politics?”  Typically, people respond to this question with “back-stabbing,” “kissing up,” “spreading misinformation,” “playing games,” “dangerous” and “I don’t want anything to do with it.” 

But, as with most things related to people, it’s not black and white; while some individuals use politics in a way that hurts others, not everyone does, and, there are shades of grey.  Either way, politics is a serious topic and it can make or break your career.  Once you start climbing the career ladder, political skills become increasingly important for your success.

Many of us try very hard to stay out of workplace politics.  But, avoiding it usually doesn’t work.  Just being part of an organization makes you a participant, by default.  It’s not uncommon for people to become pawns in someone else’s political strategy.  You may not see political events unfolding until you’ve fallen into or been pulled into them.  What can help to avoid the dark side of company politics is understanding how the politics in your workplace works and how people fit.

When we understand the political environment, we can find effective, positive ways to promote our purposes and objectives and even advance own careers.  We can get what we want at work without compromising our values. 

Build Your Position of Strength

Your Position of Strength is a foundation that can provide you with essential protection in the event you become a target in someone’s political strategy.  Your ability to build a substantial Position of Strength depends on three key elements: your behavior, your performance, and your work relationship with your boss. These are the same elements that create your personal brand. These three elements form your reputation and can influence others to respect and support you. Therefore, these are your top three priorities. Let’s touch briefly on each one.

Rule 1: Your behavior reflects the the best version of you.

  • Build and present an attitude of positivity and enthusiasm. 
  • Your values and the Company values are the best guides for your behavior.  Demonstrate ethics and integrity. Adopt a set of operating principles, such as the following:
    • Be fully honest, with everyone.
    • Do what’s right.
    • Act with the greater good in mind.
    • Treat everyone with respect at all times. Don’t participate in or silently support gossip, and don’t speak negatively about anyone.
    • Prevent confidential information from being discovered.
    • Keep your promises and commitments.
    • Never take credit for the accomplishments of others, especially if you helped them.
  • Be careful choosing those whom you’ll trust with personal information, such as your thoughts, dreams, fears, goals, preferences, problems, challenges and experiences. While transparency can be an important way to strengthen relationships and build trust, blind trust is not wise. We’re not suggesting that you suspect everyone of wishing you ill, but not everyone cares about your well-being.  That’s a reality in today’s workplace.
  • Build and strengthen your self-regulation skills.  This is a key component of Emotional Intelligence.  There are two points I’d like to emphasize, two skill-areas that are critical to master: 
    • In any conversation, know when to keep your mouth shut.  The rule of thumb is, listen 80% of the time; listen and learn.
    • Manage your emotional reactions.  Get training or coaching on self-regulation, an important element of Emotional Intelligence.  Learn the process of responding calmly, respectfully, constructively, professionally and positively no matter what someone may say to or about you, no matter what someone may do, or how they do it.  Keep your cool.  Manage yourself.

Rule 2: You’re a high performer.

  • Deliver excellent performance, consistently, no matter how hard you need to work to do it.  While being a powerful performer in itself is not enough to ensure your success, it provides a platform to launch your career and to build your brand. Add value in work assigned to you, and volunteer for tough assignments aligned with your job priorities.  Over-deliver. Make it your signature to go the extra mile.  But don’t tell people about it, don’t brag, and don’t complain about how hard or how long you work. 
  • Learn the company’s mission, vision, and goals, products, services and customers. Understand how your job and work responsibilities fit into the big picture. Continuously develop knowledge and expertise in what you do, to be a resource to co-workers, a Go-To Person.
  • Make it a personal mission to continuously build knowledge and skills that will strengthen current performance and prepare you for future growth.  Examples include the following:
    • Building effective work relationships
    • Giving constructive feedback
    • Eliciting and accepting feedback
    • Resolving disagreements and conflicts
    • Negotiating
    • Teamwork
    • Brainstorming
    • Understanding and meeting the needs of key stakeholders, such as internal customers and suppliers
    • Specific job-related skills

Rule 3: You have an excellent work relationship with your boss.

  • Your work relationship with your boss is the most important one you have at work. Focusing on this is critical; don’t assume that because s/he hired you, your boss is committed to your success or has your back. Take responsibility for developing and sustaining a strong relationship with your boss.  Keep in mind, also, that your behavior and performance impact both the nature of your relationship with your boss and your ability to succeed at your job.
    • Adapt to your boss’s style of work and communication.  Use the communication tools s/he prefers unless something urgent is important to share right away and/or requires his/her immediate attention.
    • Always be on time for meetings with your boss, and be well-prepared.  Don’t take for granted that you can be a little late or unprepared. 
    • Be professional; by this I mean don’t kiss up, don’t flatter your boss, or brown-nose.  Your relationship with your boss is not about those superficial things, which, by the way, could actually have a negative impact on how you are viewed.
    • The importance of good communication can’t be over-emphasized.  Discuss your assignments to ensure you and your boss are aligned on what’s expected of you.  Get agreement on priorities.  Have regular one-on-one meetings to update your boss, to get feedback on how you’re doing and to discuss any issues or concerns s/he needs to know about. 
    • Take cues from your boss as to how much personal chit chat s/he prefers and the boundaries of that chit-chat.
    • Determine what information about work progress and obstacles your boss prefers you share, and proactively provide it so that s/he does not feel out of the loop, can help you when appropriate, and is satisfied that s/he can trust you to keep him/her informed and aware.

Now, you’re building your brand, your reputation, your Position of Strength. It’s time to focus on understanding the politics in your workplace.

Understand the Political Environment

Accept the fact that all workplaces have politics.  An organization is made up of people who have their own histories, feelings, needs and goals. We all want success, but what that means is different to each of us.  And, people have different approaches to succeed and to get what they want or need to achieve our goals.  

We all seek to influence others, to be respected and valued and successful.  The interdependencies that exist throughout organizations ensure we depend on others’ actions and decisions.  Some people are open and others are secretive about their desires and plans.  And so, as we work, our assorted histories, feelings, needs, goals and approaches come together, creating politics. 

Following are 7 tips:

  1. Treat workplace politics as you would any other job-related skill.  Research and read about it, identify people who are skilled at it, and learn by observing them.
  2. Continuously improve your communication skills and your emotional intelligence skills. Learn how to deftly handle public criticism, embarrassing situations, and betrayals.
  3. Build your personal brand and network of associates.  Politics is about establishing the right connections who provide you the support you need to achieve your goals.
  4. Be courageous and positively assertive. Instead of silently allowing people to steal your ideas at meetings, for example, respond calmly and pleasantly.  You might agree with the idea, noting that you had suggested it earlier and you’d like to discuss it further.
  5. Learn what to talk about, with whom. Don’t over-share with the wrong people.
  6. Choose your battles instead of focusing on being right all of the time. Prioritize.
  7. Be less predictable.  The more predictable your behavior and choices are, the easier it is for people to take advantage or to sabotage your progress.

Summary

Organization politics are pervasive.  To assume that understanding workplace politics isn’t necessary is a mistake that can impact your satisfaction and success at work.  Once you have developed some valuable knowledge and experience and/or advance into a leadership role, you are likely to be viewed as a threat to others in a competitive work environment. This is because you’re at the point where, with or without intention, you are a potential competitor for what someone else wants–a position, power, a staff, or something else.  

In most organizations, once you are viewed as a threat who can prevent a colleague from achieving their goals, you become vulnerable. If you are unprepared, you may end up being left behind, unable to succeed.  The optimum time to learn the politics in your organization is early in your experience there, before you become a threat to others. 

What advice would you offer others to learn and manage workplace politics? What are your thoughts on this article? Please share your thoughts and opinions.

Recommended Reading

“The Emotionally Intelligent Workplace,” by Cary Cherniss and Daniel Goleman, edited by The Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations” copyright 2001 by Cary Cherniss and Daniel Goleman, Jossey-Bass publishers.

“Credibility,” by James M. Kouzes and Barry Posner, copyright 1993 by Jossey-Bass, publishers.

“The Speed of Trust,” by Stephen M.R. Covey with Rebecca R. Merrill, copyright 2006 by CoveyLink, LLC.

“Smart Trust,” by Stephen M.R. Covey with Rebecca R. Merrill, copyright 2012 by Coveylink, LLC.

Copyright August 20, 2021 by Rosanna M. Nadeau

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