Office Politics

Don’t let yourself become a victim of office politics. Learn the tell-tale signs and what to do about them in this excerpt from Savvy: Dealing with People, Power and Politics at Work.

“If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re probably right!”

Mark Twain

The world is in a state of turmoil.  Economies are floundering, job losses are rife, uncertainty levels are soaring and technology is transforming the way we do business.  In the absence of a new ‘rule book’, we’re having to make it up as we go along.  Fertile ground for office politics!

So, how do you respond?  Do you put your head down, pretend nothing’s happening and hope for the best?  Or are you politically savvy, approaching events with your eyes wide open and trying to make a difference where you can?    

Are you a victim?

Overheard by her team, an accounts manager complained: “Influencing is not relevant in our job.  We have no authority.  The people we deal with are ignorant.  They don’t give us what we need and there’s nothing we can do about it.”  Clearly a victim.  But not only was she limiting herself, she was also setting a terrible example for her team, who – unsurprisingly – also adopted this negative, whinging approach.  Are you a victim of the politics?  You may not be quite so downbeat as this accounts manager, but there may be more subtle ways in which you find yourself on the receiving end, rather than in the driving seat.  How many of the following apply to you?


  1. You find out what others are saying about you from third parties.
  2. You can’t really trust people.
  3. People who get on are not necessarily the most deserving.
  4. People are quick to point the finger when something goes wrong.
  5. There are lots of cliques and you aren’t part of them.
  6. There are lots of informal meetings behind closed doors.
  7. Colleagues talk behind others’ backs.
  8. People tend to be suspicious about decisions taken.
  9. People are suspicious of others’ motives.
  10. Gossip is rife.
  11. Others take the credit for your successes.
  12. You are pressurized into doing favours for others.
  13. People are grabbing as much turf as they can.

Thirteen ticks would be unlucky indeed!  But even if you’ve experienced a few, it makes sense to examine why.  Do any of these sound familiar?

  • “There’s nothing I can do.”
  • “I never see it coming.”
  • “I can’t be bothered.”
  • “I don’t know how.”

“There’s nothing I can do”

Think about your colleagues.  How many of them are proactive and truly make a difference?  The answer is probably depressing.  It’s a fact of life that it’s easier to criticize and complain, than it is to take action.  Not only is it easier, but it’s more fun too – and therapeutic!  Being proactive requires hard graft, resilience and unquenchable optimism.

Are you more reactive than proactive?  If so, does it really matter?  The short answer is yes.  As well as having less impact, reactive people are more likely to feel oppressed and be prone to free-floating anxiety.  Or they may be ‘passive aggressive’: yes, they make their voices heard; yes, you know they’re unhappy.  But they rarely focus on what they could do to make a positive difference.

The good news is that, if you err on the reactive side, you can teach yourself to be more proactive by re-framing your thinking.  Conceptually, this is a simple technique:

  1. Be in tune with your thinking.
  2. Recognise when it’s negative.
  3. Turn this around, so that it is more positive.

So, if you find yourself thinking, “There’s nothing I can do,” the re-frame might be, “Of course there’s something I can do.  Let me list the key stakeholders and establish how I can influence each one.”

“I never see it coming”

Some people appear to have the ability to see round corners – and over the horizon.  They are exceptionally talented at anticipating difficulties.  Others are not only taken by surprise, but make the same mistakes again and again, and so are likely to become victims of negative politicking.  To minimize this risk, it’s vital to be astute.  Be aware of what’s going on around you, think through why others might be behaving the way they are and invest time in anticipating consequences.  In short, spot the ‘flags’.  Here are some examples:

  • You are removed – from a project team, a meeting, a circulation list.
  • Someone’s behaviour changes towards you – they might become more aggressive or start to ignore you.
  • Lots of meetings take place behind closed doors.
  • You hear mixed messages.
  • You are pumped for information, but you don’t know why.
  • You are asked for input, but not invited to be involved.
  • Your boss has lost credibility in the business.
  • You hear what others have said about you, rather than to you.

This list is not exhaustive.  In one organization, we asked a group to list potential flags and they rapidly identified over 100.

But don’t just think of yourself as a victim in all this.  What about as perpetrator of a political situation.  Sometimes even the most innocent act – or omission – can trigger a chain of events, with catastrophic consequences.  Stopping for a moment to consider the possible effects of what you are about to do helps minimize this risk.

“I can’t be bothered”

You may become a victim because you choose not to engage.  You’re fully aware of what’s going on, but don’t have the time, or the inclination, to get involved with politics.  Perhaps you’ve already worked a 10-hour day, or you’ve got a spreadsheet to finish.  In our recent survey, 65% admitted that they couldn’t be bothered with playing politics.  These people feel their results should speak for themselves and very uncomfortable blowing their own trumpet.  And when pressed further, many get to, “This is just wrong.”  For them, political savvy is akin to behaving unethically. 

Is this how you feel?  If so, a vital step is to shift your view and develop a more positive perception of political savvy.  Think about the consequences of your reluctance to engage.  If you don’t publicize your successes, and those of your team, people may not be aware of your excellent work.  Could you be accused of failing to share good news and best practice?  And is there a risk that the team will suffer when it comes to recognition and reward?  If you don’t actively influence the powers that be, you can’t complain when your projects fail through lack of support.  So you need to engage, but in a way which doesn’t offend your personal integrity.

“I don’t know how”

Suppose you’ve decided to take a positive proactive approach and have learned how to read situations, but you still don’t know what to do when difficult situations come along.  If this is the case, read Savvy.  The book will help you to develop your political savvy – at whatever level and in whatever industry. 

Excerpted from Chapter 2 of Savvy: Dealing with People, Power and Politics at Work , by Jane Clarke, published June 2012 by Kogan Page. Copyright 2012 by Jane Clarke. Reproduced by permission of Kogan Page.

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