How to survive office politics

I think Office Politics should be a course at the University, but it is however not, so we are very ill-equipped when coming out of college. As this excellent article from the Harvard Business Review will tell you, it is not something you can neglect. “The question is not whether organizations will have politics but rather what kind of politics they will have.”

I myself have had to deal with it more often than I desired. It usurps all of your energy and time and sometimes can lead to health problems and/or people quitting their job. I hope this blog gives you the tools to protect yourself from the ills of office politics. 

Establish the problem

First, you will need to establish what the problem is. Is it simply a matter of differences in opinion? A difference of insight? Is the problem that the person you are dealing with has a completely different personality type than yours? Maybe your approach was targeted at the wrong personality type. And always, always, always leave open the possibility that the problem is YOU! Yes indeed, you might be having a bad day, and your work is suffering from it. Maybe you simply screwed up. However, what is most important to establish is whether the person you are dealing with is plain evil. Because if that is the case you have a problem that cannot be solved within simple office structures or simply by having a sit-down. Everything after this section will deal therefore with people that are malignant. 

Set boundaries

Being a nice guy/girl will get you far. Everybody loves to work with people that are easygoing, however. When faced with people that have made bulldozing over other people a daily habit, it will leave you on the losing side, eleven out of ten times. The first thing you will need to do is set boundaries and draw up the red lines. When people cross those lines reprimand them immediately  Do not waste time ruminating whether or not you should say something. Do it immediately. Preferably on the spot. If the situation is such that you cannot do it immediately schedule a meeting as soon as possible with the person. Put in the subject line or text very clearly what is bothering you; ”Hi Charles, you interrupted me 14 times previous meeting, I am scheduling a meeting to talk about your behaviour”. Avoid sending long emails. I know this is easier, but it is also chicken.

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Start documenting everything 

If people are malignant or plain evil, you will need to start treating them as files. Document everything. Dates, emails, notes. You will need to establish a case against them. So when the moment arrives you have built up a solid case. Again, do not do this if the person simply made mistakes, or if you have plain human differences. Building up files of persons is in itself bordering on acceptable, so only do this if you have a full-fledged evil person against you, not simply Joe who you don’t like. 

Deliver quality work 

Your work will need to be impeccable. Make sure you meet deadlines, show up on time and that the other person cannot build up a file against you. In extreme cases, people tend to call in sick. I have also been in that situation but always decided to go to work, knowing that if I deliver stellar work it will help my case. Moreover, I also took some gratification in that people would love to see me back down, which I didn’t. In case you do make mistakes, don’t cover them up. Apologise simply. What a lot of people fail to realise is that vulnerability is not a weakness, vulnerability will actually save your ass. 

Build alliances

You will need to build alliances left and right. Both with peers as well as superiors. I have a totally non-machiavellian approach to this. Simply deliver good work, be nice to people and create an environment of trust and safety. Let other people shine. Apologize if you have done harm. Take time for people. The workplace sometimes seems like a dog-eat-dog world, but over a longer period of time, you can become brothers in arms even with the people you competed with. If all of this doesn’t work, I would re-evaluate if I am in the right organisation altogether. 

Formalise the relationship and keep it professional 

Forget about breakdowns or having scenes at the office. You will always need to be professional. The colder and more professional you become the fewer people can get to you. People will throw everything at you, you will however be only driven by facts and your professional mindset. You have a file to back your case up and you have a track record that speaks for itself. Finally, people that are ill will tend to pull everything into the informal. If you have truly established the person is malignant, refuse to meet for coffee, in back rooms or without an agenda. Avoid meeting with them alone. Ask them to put their questions in mail instead of calling on the phone. 

Bonus: The Role of Gossip 

Gossip has an important role in tribal relations, and the office is nothing more than the tribe reinvented. In the book The Power Paradox a lot of attention is given to the function of gossip. Rather than just a nasty human trait, it is an important tool for tribes to allocate or divert power to individuals in the tribe. Those that serve the tribe well are spoken well of, and those that harm the tribe are bad-mouthed. I myself have resolved to keep gossip at a minimum, I am however hyper-aware when it happens. I always try to find out the deeper meaning of gossip. Treat gossip a bit more seriously than you would normally. It’s little hints of power grabs or the tribe trying to get rid of a bad leader.