Making The Most of Office Politics

CareerPro Inc.Blogging, Corporate Services, Talent Transition

By Jeff Davidson, MBA, CMC and John M. O’Connor, MFA, CRW

Have you noticed how office organization charts always look so nice and neat — how the lines of communication are always straight and direct?  Jason reports to Margaret who reports to David who reports to Damon.  That’s the formal power structure of the organization. It’s important because it shows who has authorized power and is presented to the outside world as the official chain of command.

Charting the informal power structure in your office is a different matter.  Knowing it is more important to your career advancement, however, than having a copy of the formal organization chart. Looking, listening and making note of these critical distinctions will allow you to navigate your career more effectively at any stage – entry level to executive.


The Informal Power Network
To fathom the informal power network, first make a list of the people in your division or department who normally have lunch together. If you are in career transition think about the last jobs held and do the same.  Next to each group, note how long they’ve been socializing together.  Then make notes on how the members of the group can impact your career.  Suppose that one group consists of  Kim, David, Adam and Tonya.  They have all worked together for three months.  Next to this information, you might write, Project managers; could broaden my horizons, allow exposure to different projects. First look for the positive contributions each can make for you.

The longer such groups have been together, the harder it can be to make inroads.  However, these are the groups likely to have important information, and depending on how you strike them, may embrace you as an insider. Take note of any small groups that meet behind closed doors but are not working on an office project.  A shift could be in the works.  Whether it succeeds or not, stay tuned.

Notice who walks into the office of the department or division without an appointment. No matter where they’re listed on the formal organization chart, these people have power.

The informal system is based on relationships among the people in the office.  Its foundation is the grapevine an information system almost as complete as today’s online government watch over our lives because knowledge is power. Let’s focus more on your power. Power your ability to make things happen, to control key parts of events is the currency of career advancement.  For example, Jeannette learned that her boss was planning to give an assignment that she wanted to her coworker, Ted.  Jeannette was disappointed, but she prepared for it rather than hearing the news from her boss and reacting on a gut level to a decision already made.  Acting on her knowledge, Jeannette approached her boss with several reasons why she wanted the assignment, without mentioning Ted at all.  She got the assignment.

Be alert to office rumors that can expose you to opportunities, crises, and power shifts in sufficient time to plan your responses. Planned potential responses show maturity. Emotional reactions do not. Office rumors can be good for preparation not reactions.

What about a mentor at any stage of your career? A mentor also can help you understand the power nuances within your organization or your profession.  Mentors enjoy passing on information, and those years of experience can be highly beneficial to you! Good mentors help you distill responses from potential reactions and plan for success. Having a mentor inside the organization and away from the politics and noise of office rumors helps. External mentors and coaches can provide an even greater third-party insight into your career plans.


To Succeed is to Create Adversaries
If you’re good at what you do, you’re going to have adversaries.  Using that eventuality to your advantage is a good indication of your ability to play office politics. Don’t go out of your way to create conflict with known adversaries but determine your adversary’s point of view so that your own will become more enlightened.  Is your adversary more conservative about projected costs and time lines when writing proposals?  Does he or she have different types of relationships with clients? Assess and evaluate and allow an adversary to motivate you to plan better.

Analyze an adversary’s tactics and use whatever might work for you.  How does Marsha interact with the boss?  What does Jeff say to the administrative staff so that his requests get handled quickly?  Assess the motives of your adversaries and you’ll understand your own motives better.  Do they seek the position that you are seeking? Could they be enlisted to help you in some ways?

Listen to your adversary’s attacks on you when and if they arise.  Forget any personal feelings engendered by such an attack and listen for the important data that will surface from vituperative remarks — information about how you’re perceived by others.

Dine Out
Don’t isolate yourself by eating lunch at your desk every day. Don’t stay in the same click. Get out and branch out; break bread with others out of your comfort zone. Lunch conversations can give you valuable insight on peoples’ attitudes toward the organization, their jobs, each other and even how their personal life impacts their professional life.  It’s better to be on the edge of several different cliques than to get tied up with the same group every day for lunch.  Invite someone to lunch from a different division in the organization. Use that time as an opportunity to find out what that division does as well as the chance to discover if you have similar professional interests.

“Do lunch” particularly if you are having problems with a coworker.  The chance to discuss work issues in a different environment, or even to ignore work issues and try a social exchange, may be all that’s needed to smooth the way for the work relationship. Don’t wait to be invited for lunch — you could wait forever.  Act rather than react.  If someone leaves your office saying, “We must have lunch sometime,” take advantage of the opening. Call within a few days and suggest two or three times that you’re free.  People are more likely to accept an invitation when offered a variety of specific times.

Although it’s more common for those higher on the power ladder to initiate lunch suggestions, don’t be afraid to invite an executive above your level.  Surprise moves can sometimes be effective attention getters. Even if they say no it will be remembered and usually positively.  Many higher-ups may genuinely appreciate your initiative and professional aggressiveness.

Drinks and dinner after work play different roles depending on your organization. At one office, employees may meet for happy hour every other Friday after work.  It can be a good as a morale builder.  People whose work didn’t bring them in contact with one another through the week talk and joke during the Friday sessions. Look for those “social networking” opportunities and be a part of those “unofficial” get togethers. It will increase your sense of belonging and it does matter. Going out for drinks after work “with the gang” can be a friendly way to show team spirit and solidarity, particularly after a long, involved project.  Have a beer if you are so inclined, but if the rest of the crowd gets rowdy, stay cool.  It’s a lot easier to accept an apology from someone who had too much to drink the night before than to have to make apologies for your own behavior.

Body Language Says a Lot
Body language can be a rich source of information about relationships in the office.  People who lounge in an office door may be demonstrating a lack of confidence about entering the room, or may be indicating to the person inside that they don’t have the time to sit down.  People standing or walking close to each other are probably allies; people who act friendly but look away while talking to each other are showing their discomfort or distraction.

Body language can also be a clue that a person is lying.  A study conducted years ago by Dr. Robert Goldstein of New York University found that Americans tell an average of 1,000 lies per year.  Our guess is that that figure has increased greatly.  Liars tend to:

* Have a brief, minimal change in facial expression
* Cut back on gestures and eye contact
* Lean forward less, shift in their seats
* Become self-conscious
* Adjust their clothing
* Scratch (!)
* Talk slowly
* Speak in shorter sentences than normal, thinking that the longer they talk, the more likely they are to give themselves away.  (They’re right, they will give themselves away.)

In some places in Southeast Asia, it is believed that someone telling a falsehood blinks more rapidly than is normal for them. Certain people calmer types and men more than women smile more when they lie, presumably because this is a gesture they can control. Other signs, such as a perspiring brow or flushed cheeks, may indicate that someone is uncomfortable rather than lying.

Learn What Topics are In and Out
Every organization seems to have certain areas of discussion or topics that are off limits.  So, depending on where you work, it may be necessary to stick with safe talk.  What is safe talk?  Where some of our friends work, for instance, all public conversations are trivial and focus on sports, weather or company programs. Find out what your company values and stick with the so-called approved topic agenda.

Getting into a hot political discussion in the elevator, however amicable and cogent, may stall or sink your advancement plans. The bad part about this is that nobody may tell you that you have crossed the line. They will just treat you like you have. So as tempting as it is stay cool on hot topics.

Review any public relations releases about your superiors.  If, for example, civic organizations or volunteer work are prominently mentioned, you know that these activities are valued. Find out if the commitment by the higher ups really matters to them personally or if they happen to be doing it out of corporate obligation. No matter, it’s important to know what others around you are passionate about outside of their core responsibilities. If you can naturally participate in any company sponsored activities related to volunteering then have at it.

Learn enough about the organization rules to know when it’s important for your career to blend in, and when it’s important to stand out.  Know where the crowd is going and why they’re going there, without losing your individuality. Most of all, remember that politics is never a substitute for doing a good job.

Getting Along With the Production Staff
Other than the self-fulfillment that comes from treating each person with respect, there are several practical reasons for treating your organization’s clerical and production staff well.  The first is that good treatment tends to get your work done faster (and better) than the work of a person in the office who doesn’t treat the production staff well.  Production staff members may not be unprofessional enough to sabotage your work or do it poorly, since that would damage their own reputation as well as the entire organization’s. In the military and in academics, we see people treat others as their “subordinates” and that usually if not always works to hurt your career progressions and certainly, at least, your company reputation.  Nevertheless, take note of the patterns in your own office and make it a point to value those around you at any level.

If the assistant responsible for copying documents feels comfortable enough with you to ask questions, rather than directing such questions to his or her supervisor who must then relay them to you, the work will get done faster.  And, obviously, the supervisor won’t be bothered by a lot of questions that you can answer.

Another reason for having the production staff as allies is that they’re a rich source of information.  They know who turns in work on time and how complete it is, sometimes more accurately than the person’s direct supervisor. Another reason is that these people are most likely to go the extra mile for someone who cares about them and treats them with respect.

The owner of a mid-size architectural firm says that he learns more by taking the administrative staff out to lunch than from weekly progress meetings with his top managers. “They know who’s making calls about new jobs, who’s slacking off work, who’s coming in late, and who makes jokes about me and the other partners,” he says.

Members of the administrative staff also talk to each other in the office. One insecure executive (and there is at least one in every firm) played tyrant to the production pool, asserting power that he wanted, but didn’t have.  Soon everyone in the office was aware of his unnecessary ranting and raving to the production workers.  His reputation quickly went down the toilet, and he eventually left for another organization.

Conversely, when a member of the production staff is asked for an opinion on how he or she is treated, good deeds will surely be appreciated and mentioned. The manager of the accounting department e-mailed the head of the production department of her company, praising her and the staff for their fast turnaround and accurate work on important financial reports.

The accounting manager cc’d a copy of the e-mail to the president of her company. The president was so pleased that someone had made the effort to notice the work of the production department that she took the accounting manager to lunch. The manager said that, although she hadn’t planned the political perks that came from acknowledging the production staff, she certainly enjoyed them.

Easing the Production Load
Accurately estimating the amount of time needed for your project will win you big points with your production staff.  If everyone in your office accurately estimates the time needed for their portions of projects, missed deadlines will be avoided, managers will have more time, and support staff will feel less stressed.

Respect the production scheduling process and work with the staff to adjust it only for emergencies. Working effectively with support staff can only make their lives simpler, and your life and career advancement smoother. Politics of any kind involve people, people who outrank you and those who you outrank. What matters often is not titles but the positive ways you treat, listen, interact, respond not react to all information you can learn in the important political power process of your career.

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