Ken Tysiac
Play office politics game … and win

Well-intentioned workers who avoid the game may miss out on opportunities to build real relationships that can advance their careers.

September 4, 2012
By Ken Tysiac

Just about everybody who has ever collected a paycheck can recognize the different types of “office politicians.”

The gossipmonger spreads rumors in a misguided effort to build alliances by tearing down other people. The flatterer tries to make friends with insincere compliments, frequently directed at the boss. The credit stealer tries to claim responsibility for successful projects that were completed by others.

Although those are personalities and behaviors some might want to avoid in the office, some experts say playing the office politics game the right way is essential to workplace success. They describe office politics as building relationships with people in order to create momentum for your projects and advance your career.

Executive career coach Beth Weissenberger said politicking should be treated as a business strategy along with making budget, meeting sales targets, and delivering on time. She said employees who quietly do a good job without building relationships are making a mistake.

The silent, disconnected masses

Two surveys done by staffing firm Robert Half show that many workers tend to shun office politics. In survey results released Aug. 23, 39% of 700 North American workers said they do not participate in office politics. Results released in February show that 42% of 400 office workers surveyed believe involvement in office politics is not at all necessary to get ahead in one’s career.

Those workers are missing out on opportunities, according to Franke James, author of the 2009 book Dear Office-Politics: The Game Everyone Plays.

“Office politics is everywhere,” James said. “It crosses all cultures and it respects no boundaries. … Office politics gets under everyone’s skin. You can’t escape it, but you have to learn to deal with it.”

James said workers must be ethical and have the company’s best interests at heart when engaging in office politics. And it is important to differentiate between acceptable office politics and gossip.

Weissenberger and James identify appropriate office politics as the building of relationships that help employees accomplish their objectives and advance in their careers. Those relationships can and should be built without participating in gossip or spreading innuendo about other people, according to the experts. Yet the Robert Half survey results released in August show that 54% of workers who identified office politics in their workplace said gossip or spreading rumors is the most common form of office politics they observe.

Weissenberger, co-founder and vice chairman of The Handel Group, a New York corporate consulting and private executive coaching company, calls gossip “a crime,” and warns the executives she coaches not to engage in it, even as a passive listener. James said taking part in gossip subverts the objectives of workers who think they are building allegiances by doing it.

“By engaging in gossip, you actually are undermining your own credibility and trust, because most people … in the back of their mind, they’re thinking, ‘If she’s saying that about someone else, what’s she saying about me behind my back?’ ” James said.

Other forms of office politics cited as common in the Robert Half survey include flattering the boss and taking credit for other people’s work. But Weissenberger said workers who participate in the right kind of office politics can and do get ahead.

Doing it right

The workplace cafeteria provides ample evidence of workers’ fear of building relationships, according to Weissenberger. She said workers tend to sit with the same friends at the same table every day without ever daring to speak to the power brokers at the adjacent table who could help advance their career.

“Fear of God comes into people’s eyes when you say, ‘You actually have to go say “hello” and meet people,’ ” Weissenberger said. “That’s the last thing on their list. They would rather just get their job done.”

Weissenberger provided the following tips for successful relationship building:

  • List the important people inside and outside your company whom you need to know to advance your career. Introduce yourself to them and meet with them. Lunch provides an excellent opportunity for this.
  • If there is a lunchroom or cafeteria at work, sit at a different table with different people three times a week.
  • Take a genuine interest in the people you meet. Ask them where they went to school and how they got their job, and show them that you care about them.
  • When meeting with somebody whose position is significantly more prestigious than yours, ask that person to mentor you.

When power brokers get to know you, Weissenberger said, they will be likely to mention you when they’re discussing opportunities for important projects and promotions. She also said it’s essential to inform your boss if you’re interested in being promoted.

Weissenberger says the lack of a promotion is what leads clients to her door. “They can’t understand why they haven’t been promoted,” Weissenberger said. “One of the first things I say is, ‘Does your boss know you want to be promoted?’ [They say], ‘Oh, no. No. I’m doing my job. I’m getting my job done, I’m getting great reviews.’ ”

Weissenberger said that is not enough. And she said engaging in the right kind of office politics—though it might seem difficult—is the way to get ahead.

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Ken Tysiac is a senior editor for the  Journal of Accountancy and CGMA Magazine.