Playing Office Politics - Minus the Backstabbing

At some point in their career, everyone feels the sting of someone else’s strategic quest to gain an advantage. Last year, an anonymous CFO sought help from the Proformative community when a fellow C-suite occupant was seeking out ways to trash the CFO’s opinions to the CEO. Earlier this year, another finance executive wrote about being repeatedly passed over for advancement, asking if having a “detailed focus” and shying away from self-promotion might be part of the problem.

Organizational politics is an unfortunate fact of life of everyone who spends their days in an office. At its best, it can be an annoyance or a distraction from the work at hand. At its worst, it can derail advancement, ruin a reputation or crush a career. But with the right attitude, anyone from a rank-and-file worker to the C-suite can perform a kind of political jujitsu, transforming the inherent clash of workplace personalities and agendas into a positive force for both their careers and the company’s performance.

A 2012 survey by Robert Half International found that 56 percent of office workers think participating in office politics is necessary to get ahead, with 15 percent calling it “very necessary.” Brett Good, senior district president for Robert Half, said it’s natural that departments and project managers jockey for ways to bring more of the company’s limited resources—money, staff time, or anything else—to bear on their own priorities.

“When the focus is on the greater good of the enterprise, that’s a good thing,” Good said. “But when it focuses on personal, or departmental, gain… that’s when it can become destructive.”

Responding to the finance exec that worried he was being passed over for promotions, Proformative Advisor Wayne Spivak, president and CFO of SBAConsulting, wrote that being attuned to the social dynamics of an office can be a key to getting things done—both for you and for the organization. “Become more social,” Spivak suggested. “Interact more on a professional level with those who can help your career move along.” Doing the political thing—networking and building relationships—is also a leadership quality in itself, he notes.

The higher-up you are, the more crucial the social or political part of the job. Julie Jansen, a business coach and author of the book You Want Me to Work with Who?, notes that  getting things done around the office requires building and maintaining interpersonal relationships. That shouldn’t mean developing insular cliques that support your own interests but being friendly with everyone across the organization. A CFO needs to be able to have a respectful and trusting relationship not just with the CEO and direct reports, but with the IT guy and the secretary of the marketing department.

“You never know who you’re going to need on a project,” Jansen said. “People are going to be much more helpful with people who are nice to them than those who aren’t.”

Jansen said putting your head down and getting work done can be appealing, but ultimately it’s not doing you or the company any favors. Employees who sabotage others, gossip, and claim credit for co-workers’ accomplishments must be dealt with head-on. One simple precaution against that kind of negativity is to build your own personal “brand” by making it clear what you’re accomplishing. Sometimes, she said, workers are uncomfortable with what feels like bragging, but there are ways to discuss your work that don’t reek of self-promotion.

“You just do it in terms of, ‘Wow, I’m really excited. If it works out, this will be the benefit for the company,’” she said.

If a subordinate or a fellow executive does something you can’t stomach, Jansen said the solution is to be straightforward. Sit down with them and talk about what you’ve seen or heard.

“Don’t be a wuss,” she said. “People are so afraid of confrontation or hurting people’s feelings, or they think it’s not going to matter. But nothing’s more important than standing up for yourself.”

Proformative Advisor Christie Jahn, CFO at Atlantic Wireless Communications, had similar advice for the CFO who felt a fellow executive was in attack mode. “I would speak with her and ask if there is a reason she is communicating this way and explain how it makes you feel,” Jahn wrote. “Most people don't like confrontation and, judging from the way she is communicating with you now, you may catch her off guard and it will open up the door for the two of you to break down this barrier that is currently affecting you. It may be a total miscommunication.”

Chicago-based career consultant Marilyn Moats Kennedy said many office conflicts arise from misunderstandings. The solution, she said, is to assume the best about fellow workers’ intentions even when they seem to be acting like jerks. At the same time, she said, it’s crucial to be super-clear in your own comments. “I’ve known a lot of CFOs, and the source of some of their problems has been a casual remark that has been absolutely misinterpreted,” she said.

Like Jansen, Kennedy said it’s important to assert yourself when something seems amiss, particularly if you hold a senior position. A CFO who sees a department head going over budget should step in when the overrun is $500 and can be dealt with right away, not hold off out of politeness until the issue gets so big that the CEO needs to be involved in the conversation. Calling someone on an issue only after it’s gotten out of control could be a good way to make a permanent enemy.

Kennedy said relationship-building has to be consciously cultivated. For instance, if someone does you a favor, figure out a way to pay them back right away. For executives and department heads, making organizational politics a priority means taking the time to talk with colleagues and subordinates even when you have a million other things on your calendar.

Robert Half’s Good said the question of how much to engage with others in your office—a few minutes of water-cooler chat or a few beers after work every Thursday—depends entirely on the company’s culture. The key, he said, is to make sure everyone is on the same page and no one feels slighted.

“It’s hard to see as politicking if everyone does it,” he said.

In any case, as one CFO wrote about conflict with a fellow executive, simply staying away from politics is not an option, especially for top company leaders: “Don't dismiss it as ‘personality conflict. Identify the perp and take action! Don't be afraid to dismiss a bully outright. Anti-social behavior has no role in a productive workplace.”

 

Livia Gershon is a freelance writer in Nashua, N.H.

Comments

Member's Profile

I have little change on the comments "participating in office politics is necessary to get ahead, with 15 percent calling it “very necessary.” , I prefer "not afraid of office politics and direct the office politics to positive side". There do be office politics no matter the size of the company. On the other hand, staying out of politics may lead to become the victim and be no good to justice of the business environment if you are a CFO.

Member's Profile

This reminds me of a quote in the movie Wargames..... "A strange game, the only winning move is not to play!"

Member's Profile

I have experienced "office politics" in corporate america,academia, in a start-up, as a business owner, and as a consultant. A certain level of politics exist in any environment, and almost without exception, staying out of that game is the right move. As issues arise, remove the politics before they "gets to that". This can be done by accepting blame (at times even when it is not your fault), creating a culture of valuing and learning from mistakes, focusing colleagues on always moving forward, and promoting an environment within which internal advancement is based on actual (not perceived) accomplishments and leadership. Finally, I would argue that taking responsibility for your work and defending your professional brand and reputation is not "playing politics".