“You don’t have an option to pay attention to (office) politics if you want to excel,” organizational psychologist and coach Dr. Jennifer Wisdom explained in an in-depth interview recently on my podcast. At least “play defensive politics, or you’ll actually lose ground.”
What are “office politics” exactly? It’s how work is done, by whom and when. “Office politics is the game that’s being played, “ Wisdom said, “It’s who gets the plum assignments, who get to go to fun conferences and which meetings, and how everyone talks to each other.” The role of politics is “enormous in women’s advancement,” she emphasized.
So, how do you figure out what the office politics dynamics are in your organization?
If there is one theme to all the advice I’ve heard from the hundreds of experts I’ve interviewed, including Wisdom, and found in my own Fortune 500 career, it’s observe. Observe every interpersonal dynamic, every reaction, every word choice, every decision, and allocation of resources.
Specifically, here are 5 things to look for, followed by 5 strategies to employ to deal with office politics:
What to watch and listen for:
- Decisions, decisions, decisions: Watch how decisions are made, how transparent and fair they seem to be. Are they announced in a straight-forward way?
- Who gets what? Track who gets sent to fun or high-profile conferences and who gets plum assignments. Look for any patterns. For example: Are they going to the same people over and over? Are they going to the people with the most appropriate expertise or portfolio? If not, there’s something else going on. Who has influence?
- Details and tones of voice: Both in meetings and conversations you are involved in and those you overhear, listen to both words and inference. You’ll learn about those people and you might hear things that help you. For example, you might hear a reference to something going on at home for them or something about how they were raised that explains their communication style. You might hear the thought process behind a decision, without it being explained directly, or, about a strategic issue in the organization that will affect your work or your career. You might hear that someone is struggling with the same issues at work that you are.
- Communication style matters: Wisdom suggested paying attention to who hangs out with who, and who speaks sharply to who. Do people help each other with projects, and to learn and grow? According to Wisdom, “Many of us bring to work whatever we were raised with. So, if we were raised in a family where people didn’t communicate directly…they unconsciously bring that to the workplace.“ How do people speak to each other?
- Notice how you feel: “If you’re talking to someone who makes you feel crazy, that’s probably something with that other person,” Wisdom said. “If you’re working with someone who makes you feel like you’re not good enough, there’s something else going on.”
Strategies you can employ:
- If it persists, check it out: Don’t suppress feeling bad, especially if it happens a lot when you’re with certain people or in certain situations .”if you’re always or very often feeling not good enough or feeling uncomfortable or like that isn’t the place you want to be,” Wisdom advised, “those feelings are what you want to pay attention to and to look at both in yourself and outside to see what else is going on.”
- Don’t blame yourself: Women tend to blame themselves too often and it only makes it harder to see and understand what’s actually going on, and to manage the politics. Take responsibility for your actions, and also know that women are (still) judged differently in the workplace than men. Most women who make it to the top compartmentalize and don’t let the turkeys get in their way. (You might also enjoy my interview with Wall Street Journal Management News Editor Joann Lublin on the strategies women CEO’s of major companies have used to get ahead and succeed, based on her book.)
- Play defense: Even if you don’t want to play office politics, and many women don’t, you have to protect yourself and your career. Wisdom suggests to “play defensive politics,”; that is, “pushback when someone is trying to encroach on your territory. Know who just doesn’t like your group…and know who is always going to help you and you can count on.”
- Focus on what matters: Know and focus on achieving your goals and helping your boss achieve their goals. The rest is noise, Wisdom said. Don’t get distracted by other people’s issues and chatter if they are not relevant to those goals.
- Play fair: Like the Hippocratic oath, “First, do not harm.” Wisdom reminded us that you need to protect your reputation and your personal brand foremost. So, be as close to a “straight-shooter” as you can, don’t do anything to deliberately damage anyone else’s standing or reputation, and don’t do anything you are uncomfortable with.
- You may not like office politics, but in the workplace, you have to play the game to succeed and advance.
The more you observe, listen, focus only on what matters, and play fair, the better your chances are to get where you want to go.