The workplace can be a highly political environment. Tensions can arise in a number of different situations, and are a natural byproduct of a group of people working in close quarters day in day out, but the allocation of scarce resources can exacerbate this. Whether it’s money, positions, staff or power there are a number of things which can lead to tension and conflict, especially between workers who are particularly ambitious.
As junior members of a company, it might seem like you can avoid office politics, and at an early stage in our careers it’s not really necessary for us understand everything. While this is true to a certain extent, it’s also important to remain switched on so you don’t get dragged into the politics of the office unawares. It’s common for people to try and take the new grad under their wing and mould them into a mini version of themselves.
However, for the sake of our career development, it’s important you don’t succumb to this stereotype. Sure, having a mentor and aligning yourself with the right people is important and will help your progress further and quicker. But you don’t want to get yourself involved in any unnecessary workplace drama that’s going to hamper your career, so it’s important to equip yourself with the knowledge you need to get by successfully.
Why does office politics arise?
- Hierarchy in the workplace means some people have more power and influence than others.
- Promotion is important to most people in an organisation, not just because it reflects career progression but also the associated rise in pay. This can create competition between individuals, especially if it’s made clear that not everyone can be promoted. In addition, people may start acting in their own personal interest and not in alignment the teams wider objectives.
- Decisions at work are both influenced by work related and personal factors, which can also cause issues.
- Organisations tend to have limited resources which foster competitive behaviour as everyone seeks to get their way.
Different types of office politics
How you navigate the politics in your workplace largely depends on the type of political organisation you work for. Kathleen Kelley Reardon, an expert in workplace politics, listed four in her Harvard Business Review article:
- Minimally political companies: In these organisations, what you see for the most part is what you get. Rules and procedures are made clear, are respected and tend to be followed. Your team feels like a mini family, and little knowledge of workplace politics won’t hold you back. Here, you can be yourself and go far.
- Moderately political organisations: Workplace politics in these firms are quite minimal, but when it does exist it’s very under the radar. Great effort is made for it not to surface because of the strong team mentality. Little pockets of political activity do exist but can be easily managed and not to the detriment of others.
- The highly political arena: Formal rules take a back seat and the influence of those in power come to the forefront. Cliques emerge and you see this divide between the in groups and out groups. Who you know becomes way more important than what you know.
- Pathologically political organisations: In organisations like this, nearly every goal is achieved by going around people or formal procedures and there is a great deal of mistrust amongst individuals. People end up spending far more time watching their backs than actually doing things to progress their career.
Tips for navigating the political work environment
Observe how things work, which means understanding the office culture and the history of the team you’re in.
Who are the real influencers, the individuals with power they don’t use? Who is the people champion, the one that encourages everyone? The real brains behind major decisions?
Get to know the team dynamics, observe relationships within the team.
Are there cliques and what are they based on? What do people within the “in group” have in common? Who doesn’t get along with whom and why? What is the basis for the forming of relationships? Friendship, mutual respect or manipulation?
Be collaborative and build your network.
Build relationships with people that have informal, as well as formal power (people with informal power tend to have friends in high places). Ensure that your network consists of people from all levels of the hierarchy, so not just junior like yourself.
Don’t get personal
We spend a large amount of time in the workplace and it’s normal for your professional exterior to slip occasionally. Your colleagues might do something by accident to anger you, and you might be tempted to vent your frustrations. However, always refrain from doing this. Those who witness your mini meltdown aren’t likely to forget anytime soon, and this can be detrimental to your career, especially when you’re starting out.
If you think you have a colleague who is acting seriously out of line, have a chat with your manager or the HR department.
Don’t take sides
In a corporate environment, it is common to see two powerful people at odds with each other, and you’ll see some team members align themselves with one of the two individuals. As a junior member in your team, you may feel obliged to as well, but actually I believe you shouldn’t. You should always try to remain neutral and if anyone tries to sway your opinion or ask what you think about a certain person, just explain that you’re focused on your work and trying to achieve the team’s goal and objectives.