Like it or not, every workplace is a political environment. But operating effectively within it doesn’t have to mean sucking up, lying, or slinging dirt.
In its purest form, office politics is simply about getting from here to there: securing a promotion, seeing an idea come to fruition, or gaining support to make an organizational change. Playing the game well is about defending your position, earning respect, exchanging favors, and keeping your sanity amid the chaos.
To get started, you need to know what you really want from work, then orient your political moves toward those goals. It all starts with strong relationships and helping others; those people in return make up the support system that helps you realize your goals. Here’s how it’s done.
Figure Out Why (and If) You Want to Play
Goal: Let what’s most important to you guide your actions.
Office politics gets a bad rap because the most obvious practitioners often do it for the wrong reasons: They enjoy the ego trip, or they like to compete for the sake of competition. But the people who quietly succeed at work are also political operators — they just do it better. Those who play the game well map out their career or workplace priorities and align their politicking to those goals. “Political moves are the navigation through your career — not the driver,” says Susan DePhillips, former vice president of human resources for Ross Stores.
Start by writing down your top five career goals and priorities. These could include switching departments, making more money, unloading some of your responsibilities, or becoming the go-to person for your area of expertise. Then write down the five things you’ve spent the most time and worry on during the last six months. Do they match up? If not, you may be caught up in your colleagues’ goals instead of your own.
Next, prioritize your goals. Maybe you’re seeking a promotion, but you recently had a child and want to start leaving the office earlier. It’s not that you can’t have both, but you’re not likely to get them at the same time since new positions usually entail more responsibility and a learning curve. Decide which matters most to you right now, and start thinking about who you’ll need to persuade or influence in order to get it.
Getting What You Want
It’s tempting to think that the best way to get ahead is to buckle down and work extra hard. You’ll be recognized and rewarded for the effort, right? Don’t count on it. You can’t expect other people to magically know what you want in return. Be clear on your goals, and don’t feel shy about going after them.
If: You want a promotion...
Then: Find out how to get one.
Ask your boss what she wants from you and what skills you need to demonstrate to get promoted. Document the conversation in a follow-up email, then master those tasks and skills. This puts you in a better spot to open the conversation again — and get the promotion.
If: You want buy-in from another department when you propose an idea...
Then: Ask for support.
Ask your counterpart in that department when and how he would first like to hear about new ideas: Over coffee? In an email? As soon as they come up? Once they’ve gained approval in your department? See if he wants to be included in related meetings. Involving him earlier will increase your chances of gaining support.
If: Someone’s blocking you from your goal...
Then: Stand up to them — nicely.
Dan Coughlin, a management consultant whose clients have included Toyota, McDonald’s, and Coca-Cola, remembers a regional operations head who was frustrated because her boss finished all her sentences in group settings. “He was stepping in to make sure she succeeded,” Coughlin says, “but in doing so he wasn’t giving her enough room to operate.” The woman confronted her boss privately, and he backed off. With her increased autonomy, she gained the support of the managers in her region, and her boss recommended her for a promotion shortly thereafter.