Politics have been with us since the first cave man decided he wanted influence over the next cave man. It’s a reality of human nature that we all want to get ahead and some are willing to do more than others to make that happen. Politics exist across region and industries and workplaces, even in the places you wouldn’t expect, like charities, churches, and academia.
There are two extremes that appear in every workplace that has more than just a few people:
Those willing to do anything to get ahead, even if it hurts others unfairly
Those willing to do nothing that will improve their political position because they won’t ‘play politics’
Both of these positions are a poor response to the workplace. The pure politicians are hated and those unwilling to participate often wonder why they never seem to get ahead.
Find the political middle ground
If we agree that neither extreme is a wise course, what can an individual do to find the middle ground of fairness and the right amount of political effort? Here are some ground rules that can make you successful while still being able to sleep at night:
- Understand the culture of the organization. Those who get ahead are often very aware of the organization’s way of making decisions and know where and when to speak up or be quiet. Every organization is so different that assumptions based on past experience are probably wrong. Pay attention to the people who are successful and figure out why.
- Get results. This one is only in second position because understanding the organization is key for getting results. Individuals who get things done are well-regarded and have political cloud based on the outcomes of their work, which includes gaining cooperation from others.
- Make your results known. This is a delicate exercise because too much bragging is negative, and not enough means your effectiveness might fly under the radar. Asking for feedback on work in progress is an easy way to accomplish this.
- Align with the goals of the company. There’s work and then there’s value creation. Those who get ahead pay attention to the goals of senior management and align their work with those goals. This isn’t ‘sucking up’ but instead is intentionally making your work align with the bigger picture.
- Stay neutral. Every company develops factions that can be great for feeling accepted but can pit workers against each other. Everyone needs to be on a team to survive and succeed, but that team shouldn’t be an us versus them thing. Part of being neutral is to treat even challenging coworkers with respect, regardless of the circumstances. Oh, and never spread rumors.
When the political middle seems elusive
Even those with the best intentions can find themselves on the wrong side of an individual or two. How we react in those moments is probably the most career-defining thing we can do. Ignoring the politics may play into the hands of the individual(s) creating the problem. There’s no perfect set of advice because each situation is very different, but the choices include:
- Letting others you trust know there’s a problem so that backstabbing behavior is seen for what it is, at least by some
- Confront carefully, and if you do so in public, try to use humor to avoid appearing intense and the cause of the problem
- Be kind but don’t grovel. Sometimes its less personal than you think and reacting makes it personal. Suddenly, from nothing, you’ve created an enemy.
Politics is a tricky beast that everyone faces. It allows some lousy people to get ahead and keeps the excellent from rising to the top. If you understand politics and play it right, you can be the excellent one who rises to the top. Good luck.