Imagine that you’ve worked your butt off to position yourself for a promotion. You took a job you were more than qualified for because you believed in the company, took the projects no one else wanted and knocked them out of the park, and even mentored new teammates until they became self-sufficient stars.
But despite your hard work, there may be one more hurdle standing in your way: office politics.
If you’re like most people, you probably avoid office politics whenever possible. Earlier this year, I asked 169 employees how they currently deal with it: 20% said they try to ignore it, and 61% said they play the game reluctantly and only “when necessary.”
But if you tend to ignore office politics, consider the consequences. For example, maybe you’ve been frozen out by your team because you got your work done quickly (and made them look bad in the process), given low-visibility responsibilities by your boss after you asked her not to take credit for your work, or asked to cancel your presentation so that a favored senior manager could make his. Ignoring these situations might help get you through a tough workday without confrontation, but can set you back in your long-term career goals.
As careers author Erin Burt states, “Avoiding (office) politics altogether can be deadly for your career. Every workplace has an intricate system of power, and you can—and should—work it ethically to your best advantage.”
Nina Simosko, who leads the worldwide execution of technology strategy and operations at Nike, Inc., agrees. When it comes to office politics, Simosko warns, “There is no way around it. Once you start working with a team you are going to experience it. I am not a fan of politics, but I have learned that ignoring them can have negative consequences.” She insists that learning to deal with office politics is vital for leaders at any stage of their career. “It can determine whether you are successful in your career or not,” she said.
It’s true: Research by the Center for Creative Leadership showed that those who are politically savvy have better career prospects, better career trajectories, and are seen to be more promotable. In my experience, I’ve found that this skill is a significant blind spot for emerging leaders, who tend to focus on strengthening management and technical abilities but ignore this critical form of social intelligence. But to do so is to put their very career at risk.
So, what can be done to make office politics more palatable and easier to navigate? The answer: Build the skill of being positively politically savvy.
Gerald Ferris, Sherry Davidson, and Pamela Perrewe, the authors of Political Skill at Work: Impact on Work Effectiveness, insist that political skill is not necessarily manipulative. When “properly applied,” they say, “it makes good things happen, both for those who use it and for the organizations in which they work.” They identified four competencies of individuals who are positively politically savvy:
1. Social Astuteness
How aware are you of your organization’s social and political climate?
Aim to become something of a “corporate anthropologist,” observing the relationships between co-workers and superiors and paying attention to informal social networks.
For example, who has formed strong informal social networks, and who has been marginalized? How were those relationships built, and what’s the glue that maintains them? Or, if a relationship is broken–what went wrong?
By observing the communication and relationships that surround you at work, you might discover that those who chat about competitors’ stock prices with the VP of finance are more likely to be assigned to special projects. Or, that instead of hiding when the team gets competitive, you would do better to hang in there, go toe-to-toe with them, and ultimately earn their respect.
2. Interpersonal Influence
Every organization has people whose influence extends beyond their pay grade. Do you know who they are?
Look for people who are not necessarily in high-level roles, but who have the ability to make things happen. Who are the movers and shakers in your organization, and what can you learn from how they get things done?
For example, you might discover that before voicing an opposing opinion in a global teleconference, it pays to have influential backers present. Or, that the cafeteria line 10 minutes before a meeting is where the real decision-making takes place.
3. Networking Ability
After you have identified those influencers, draw up a strategic networking plan to build stronger relationships with them.
Include connectors, too—people who have situated themselves at the hub of social networks that extend outward, upward, and downward. And pay attention to which leaders are known for being talent developers.
Consider your most important career and leadership goals. Does your network consist of influencers, connectors, and advocates who can help?
As you do all of this, be mindful of not becoming someone you can’t stand to see when you look in the mirror. Amy Cuddy, an associate professor at Harvard Business School who has studied the characteristics that others look for in their leaders, suggests that “warmth is the conduit of influence.” You must connect with sincerity and build trust before you can lead.
Developing these four traits will help you resist recoiling from politically charged situations. You’ll be able to rely on your social intelligence instead, getting a quick read on situations and thinking on your feet. As you do, you’ll become better at handling office politics and, as a bonus, become more promotable, too.