Nobody really likes office politics. In fact, most of us try to avoid it all costs. But the reality is that companies are, by nature, political organizations, which means that if you want to survive and thrive at work, you can’t just sit out on the sidelines. If you want to make an impact in your own organization, like it or not, you’re going to need to learn to play the game. That doesn’t mean you have to play dirty, but you have to figure out how to influence those around you.
In our HBR.org series on office politics, we asked experts to provide insights and practical advice for navigating the political playing field in any organization. Together, these pieces offer a solid foundation for learning the rules of engagement.
First, it’s important to understand why playing politics is so unavoidable. Work involves dealing with people, and people are, whether we like to admit it or not, emotional beings with conflicting wants, needs, and underlying (often unconscious) biases and insecurities. Our relationships with our colleagues — with whom we both collaborate and compete for promotions, for a coveted project, or for the boss’s attention — can be quite complex. Not everyone is friend or foe; many people are somewhere in between. And more people than you might think are lying to get ahead or gossiping as way to exchange information, vent their frustrations, and bond with co-workers when they don’t trust their leaders. Put all of this together and you’ve got a highly politically-charged work environment.
So, what can you do to navigate this dizzying maze?
Let’s start with an approach for three common scenarios that many of us will have to deal with at some point in our careers: 1) When you’re mad about a decision that affects you; 2) When you need to make critical comments in a public forum; and 3) When a colleague goes postal on you. It helps to have guiding principles to call on when you find yourself in one of these situations, keeping in mind that the context of the situation determines how you should proceed.
While these are common scenarios, there are lots of other minefields you’ll come across in your organization. Perhaps you’re dealing with a boss who’s a control freak. Or, maybe you’re knee-deep in the politics of a family business, when you’re not actually part of the family. Even the most seasoned executive, who’s worked long and hard to build trust and political capital, can make the wrong move and lose years’ worth of ground in an instant. Perhaps you’ve made a very public mistake that requires an apology. It’s important to admit your flaws, fix your mistake, and reclaim respect.
Women have a unique set of challenges when it comes to navigating office politics. Research shows that women are more likely to become nervous and uncomfortable in meetings when interpersonal conflicts and other political challenges arise. And women executives say they believe politics present a particular dilemma for them: On one hand, they feel uncomfortable engaging in quid-pro-quo behavior and political maneuvering. On the other, they acknowledge that it’s all but impossible to operate above the political fray. Some of the most effective practices that help women become more politically savvy include finding a sponsor within the organization, treating politics like a game, doing some advance “political homework” before important meetings, and learning to lobby for yourself. After all, the most savvy women and men alike know how to promote themselves without looking like a jerk.
No matter what the challenge, one of the surest ways to improve your political prowess is to strengthen your emotional intelligence — it’s a key differentiator between star performers and the rest of the pack. If you recognize any of these telltale signs in yourself, don’t wait until it’s too late to address the problem. And at the end of the day, remember: when it comes to standing out in your organization and carving out a bigger leadership role for yourself, you’re never too experienced to fake it till you make it.
Dana Rousmaniere is managing editor of HBR’s Insight Centers.