Every office has politics

The question you should be asking is - How can I tune into them?

The question you should be asking is – How can I tune into them?

Office Politics has a bad reputation. It conjures up images of co-workers huddling in the tearoom, manipulative bosses plotting against defenceless staff and teams distracted by jealously and combative competition. Internal politics can so easily crush you but Hilary Armstrong, training director of the Institute of Executive Coaching, says they key is not to avoid the treacherous terrain but rather it’s about knowing how to engage and navigate through the political environment.

Armstrong says the truly political savvy understand that the workplace is brimming with power plays and self-promotion: “All relationships have an element of power, and I don’t mean hierarchical power necessarily.”  She says the latest findings from IEC client surveys reveal the need to join in different styles of conversations with different types of colleagues:

“The most interesting thing,  is the way people get insular in organisations,” she says.

The people who succeed, according to Armstrong, are those who not only understand themselves well (insight) but also understand what’s happening around them (outsight).  “They understand what politics is:

1.) A process by which organisations make decisions, and

2.) That all decisions are made through social relationships that involve power of some sort.”

Armstrong gives the example of a young executive she was coaching who was keen to get a promotion.  He had been identified as a rising star and was part of a talent management program. He sensed that his immediate boss wasn’t supporting him and he was on the edge of leaving when coaching facilitated some influence-mapping – identifying the social relationships around him that were instrumental in decision-making within the organisation. From that he could determine the influential players he needed to start having contact with. For example, the executive in charge of his division was a personal supporter, but one of his direct reports wasn’t. So he started meeting with these people, including the one who wasn’t his biggest fan.

Now before you start thinking networking on the golf course or at the pub, that’s not what Armstrong is referring to. It’s more about having a coffee with a colleague to discuss business issues. The conversations shouldn’t be about self-interest – they’re about moving the entire group forward, all the while keeping the tone positive.  “What separates the manipulator from the rest is the ‘me first’ attitude,” says Armstrong.  “We’re not talking about the grapevine. It has to be open and transparent.”

Turning office politics to your advantage means uncovering the invisible ways relationships take place in the workplace, and learning to be proactive about gaining access to this informal network.  Armstrong suggests you also watch for clues that reveal the implicit signals of power, for instance the way colleagues dress, their body language, how they position themselves in the room, even the words they use.  The co-worker who declares “Don’t give them the whole story – just give them the dot points” is clearly on a little power trip of his own.

By Rose-Anne Manns as printed in afrboss magazine June 2008