‘Office politics’ may sound like a bad word, but it’s actually a natural, and inevitable, part of human relationships. People will always have different opinions and personalities, and conflict of interest will push us to find allies, and avoid or become defensive around perceived threats.
However, conflict is not something to be feared. With proper communication, and healthy relationships with co-workers, we can steer clear of gossip and manipulation. Here are some ways to navigate office politics.
1. Don’t react—respond.
What do you do when the office jerk humiliates you during your presentation, or your boss steals your idea and presents it as his own? The first reaction is to either seek revenge or withdraw and sulk. This is the fight/flight mechanism, a primal survival instinct that has saved many a specie from extinction (our ancestors knew well enough to run away from a hungry saber tooth tiger!) but just doesn’t work in the office jungle.
You’re upset because you perceive a danger or a threat. In some cases, it’s true (‘why doesn’t my boss give me the recognition I deserve?’) but in other cases, you could be misinterpreting the situation (your co-worker didn’t mean to humiliate you, he was just defending his own department). Either way, you can assess what’s going on and make a choice: ‘What’s the best way to handle this?’ Don’t be ruled by fear or emotion. Think. Strategize. Stay in control.
2. Know your long-term goals.
Instead of thinking like a cornered animal, think like a chess player. What are your job goals? What are your career goals?
For example, the jerk who chewed you out in the presentation may feel like a threat, but he may be a useful ally. Don’t obsess over the difference in your opinions. Instead, think of how your two departments can help each other, and focus on what you can do together to meet those objectives. ‘Hey, Mark, I realize you have some concerns about the project. But we both need to deliver a 30% increase in gross sales. What do you think we can do?’ Brainstorm, and objectively discuss the pros and cons of each idea. Or, explain how your idea will eventually benefit his department. Even the biggest jerk isn’t stupid enough to bring down someone who obviously wants to help him look good in front of the boss. Look for a battle you both need to win, and he may become your greatest resource (or at least, less of an obstacle).
3. Focus on what you can do—and who can help you.
Obviously you have no control over what your boss says to the higher-ups. He was wrong to take your idea as his own, but that’s not something you can change. That being said, don’t waste energy fuming over what’s beyond your power. Instead, focus on what you can do—what some experts call ‘the circle of influence.’
For example, your peers and subordinates can see the quality of your work and personally vouch for it. Your clients can give sterling reviews. And though your boss may not give you public credit, he (obviously) thinks you do great work. You’re indispensable to him—and that’s a pretty powerful position to have, if you know how to work it.
The point is, stop feeling like a victim and look at the resources you have, the opportunities ahead, and take all the negative energy and apply it to a positive, productive goal. In this scenario, one goal would be to gain the respect and recognition of other department heads, so they can bring the news of your performance to the executive board. Or, if you really can’t take your scheming boss any longer, look for projects that will build your resume and experience so you can find a better job elsewhere.
3. Don’t get caught in the crossfire
Whatever you do, don’t ever take sides! If there are two managers or co-workers who are bickering over some issue, set aside your own personal opinions and get everybody to focus on a job objective. For example, it’s not about whether or not John is being fair or if Peter overstepped his job responsibilities, it’s finishing a project in time to meet the client’s deadline.
If the issue has escalated and the office has exploded into a war of personalities, then just duck. Quietly do your work, avoid making any statements that could be taken out of context, and play it like a U.N. ambassador: ‘I’m sure both of them have their own reasons for their actions. I hope they can resolve the problem soon, they’re both good managers.’
4. Don’t make things personal.
You may disagree on office strategies and policies, but keep your conflicts on a business level. ‘I don’t think that’s the best way to structure our sales force.’ Or, ‘I think those cost-cutting measures will hurt us in the long-term.’ Don’t turn it into, ‘He’s an idiot and I don’t even know why he got promoted in the first place.’ This is just a job, and he’s just trying to do his. Keep your personal opinions to yourself and focus on business objectives.
5. Treat everyone with respect—even if they don’t deserve it.
Never insult or humiliate anyone, because any tirades or rude comments hurt you more than the other person. Act so that everyone can say, at the end of the day, ‘Well, he’s a decent guy, even if I don’t agree with him.’ Plus, this reputation is the best protection against office gossip. ‘From the way he’s behaved before, I know he’d never do anything like that.’ Besides, you never know if the person you humiliate will be your future client, boss, or part of the 360 degree review on your promotion.
6. Listen before you speak.
Our first instinct is to react to what other people say and to speak up and defend our own position. However, in a negative situation or conflict, the first words out of your mouth should actually be a question. ‘What do you mean by that?’ ‘What are you concerned about?’ Many conflicts start from misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Try to gather data and see where the other person is coming from, and if there is any way to protect both your interests. Then, find win-win scenarios. ‘I understand your concern, and I think we can address that if we do this together….’
Asking questions also makes you appear as an understanding, sympathetic co-worker. That makes you a lot of allies, and prevents you from making unnecessary enemies.
7. Don’t let your guard down.
At the end of the day, though, you have to realize that office relationships are still a kind of powerplay. Watch your back. Cover your ass. And remember, at work, there are no common friends, only common interests.