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Your Survival Guide to Workplace Politics

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 — October 20th, 2021

Your Survival Guide to Workplace Politics

A client recently called me, ‘Are you home? I’m coming over!” I detect .. let's see ... anger, panic, sadness in his voice.

I tidy up my living space, the doorbell rings and I see him at my front porch – standing there with his veins visible on his neck and throat.

He starts yelling gibberish, and I see a nosy neighbor glance at my front door. “It’s fine”, I mouth the words while I give her a reassuring look.

Ok, back to the client. This is what he says to me, now audibly shouting:

“He betrayed me, I was shocked! Pretty much stabbed me in the back, how could he do that?”

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I want him to calm down, but obviously, I don’t tell him to calm down! Rookie coaching mistake.

I hold his hand, sit him down, and squeeze his shoulders. I let him fester for a minute, while I bring him his favorite drink: hot chocolate. He takes a sip, and looks at me through tears in his eyes.

“What happened?” I ask, in my most soothing, calm voice.

He takes another sip, and looks at me with puppy eyes, while I try not to laugh out loud at this dark brown chocolate milk-tache on his upper lip. He wipes his tears and speaks, for the first time, in a softer tone:

“ He said he’d put my name forward for the promotion, he knows I really REALLY wanted that promotion, but, changed his mind at the last minute. I just found out. I feel so deflated.”

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Ok. Full disclosure. The client in question is ... my son.

He’s 6 years old.

He was talking about the Lower Primary Student Council Rep elections.

“Welcome to the world of politics, my little big boy!”, I say, secretly relieved, in my most merry voice.

“Politics, what’s that, mama?"

I stroke his hair, plant a peck on his hot, red cheek, place my arm around him, and say:

“It’s games people play to get what they want. Power. Prestige. Wealth. Everyone does it.”

“Well, I hate politics and I NEVER want to be a grown-up. SO THERE!” He declares in his brash 6-year-old I’ve-seen-it-all style.

“Ha! Like it or not, you’re already exposed to politics since you were in kindergarten and wanted a turn at the swings. After waiting a full 20 minutes, you convinced those kids who were hogging the swings to have your way. Those swings, ah! Everyone wants to swing on those swings.” I explained.

Except that the coveted swings are the Executive Committee in a corporation, I mutter to myself.

Half listening to me, he finishes his hot chocolate, finds a forgotten Lego box beneath the dining table, and disappears for the next 2 hours.

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And me? He makes me think. About what? Politics of course.

From the Greek word ‘polis’ as in, affairs of the state.

In modern Wikipedia language: exercising anything affecting one's daily life, such as the way an office or household is managed, or how one person or group exercises influence over another. Informal Politics is typically understood as everyday politics, hence the idea that "politics is everywhere".

So, my grown-up clients (!) talk about office politics a lot. And 100% of the time, it’s a bad thing. It’s something ‘other people do.’

“Us? Me? I’m clean as a whistle”, they declare, as confident as my 6-year-old.

“Really ??!” I remind them. “Remember kindergarten?”

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Let’s agree on something here. Politics, whether at work or at home, is as unavoidable as death and taxes. Hence we might as well become friends with politics. I even have a name for this friend: Ofpol, (as in, OFfice POLitics) or Paul, for short.

No one really likes poor little Paul, but I’m going to change that. Let’s un-demonise Paul, in a way that will make us all relate to our past actions and acknowledge our old friendship, in a way that will make you sit up and say: Ah Paul! Yes, yes, we go way back!

This, along with my 5 tips on how to be good friends with Paul:

1. ‘Tooting your own horn, in a classy, deserving, not over the top way.’ During recruitment, remember how you sold yourself as the best person for the job? Or when you got that client/project/manager to agree with you by blowing your own trumpet? Not to forget performance appraisals. Same story. If you say you’ve never tooted your own horn, don’t forget the household: who reminded whom the other day about who emptied the dishwasher the last time? Congratulations, you’re good!

2. Cultivate deep relationships with those in the middle of all the action: When it comes to stakeholder management, you’ve dug deeper, you know it, I know it. You’ve looked past the formal organization charts to find out who’s really calling the shots around here.

Maybe the CEO’s executive assistant holds the real power! Once you have carved out your circle of influence and who’s in it, you don’t waste any chances to help them out and impress them, so they think oh-so highly of you. If you say you’ve never cultivated deep relationships with those in the thick of it without an ulterior motive, remember that one time you pulled in a favor to get that trusted colleague in Recruitment to see your old college roommate’s job application first? 

3. Be your quirky, authentic self: office politics shouldn’t transform you from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde. When you are yourself, you won’t be known as someone who is ‘political’.

Instead, you’ll be known as The WYSIWEG dude/gal: What You See Is What You Get. If you say you’ve never been your authentic self and have had to cover that up with a professional demeanor (poor you, that sounds exhausting!), remember that one time at the office Christmas get-together when you danced like no one was watching? You know you had fun and you loved how everyone appreciated your nerdy robot twerks.

4. Avoid the office villains like the plague: The Machiavelli, The Broadcaster, The Bean Counter. For more information on more of these, refer to the aptly titled The Schmuck in my Office by Jody Foster & Michelle Joy. If you say you’ve never had any villainous creatures at work, to you I say: Puh-lease! I once worked in a Convent in South America, and even they had more than their fair share! Made things so much more interesting!

5. Be your own Chief Reputation Officer: whether it’s Mr. Reliable / Ms. Gets Things Done / Ms. Always does the Right Thing or whatever have you. You have a brand and that brand has a reputation, whether you like it or not. If you say you don’t have a brand, please ask your closest colleagues to tell you what people say about you when you’re not in the room. Bingo.

Now, if you’re still not convinced, let me leave you with just one thought:

There are rules for getting ahead in your career. Written and unwritten.

We all usually know the written rules. Performance KPI's, etc. One of the top unwritten rules is: Being politically savvy. Politically savviness is rewarded, I’ve seen it repeatedly over 15 years, in all cultures, industries, and functions. Rewarded with better positions, better pay, better perks.

As for my son’s friend, well, he probably didn’t promise he’d vote for him. He probably just changed his mind when he saw someone else winning and decided to change sides. Does that make him a bad person? I don’t think so, that’s his prerogative. As for my son: this taught him two valuable life lessons:

a) How to be flexible in your approach when the current one isn’t working

b) How to speak more compellingly in public

Win-win.

If you’ve read this far, let me re-introduce you to your old friend: Paul, short for Office Politics. It’s nice to see you again, pal!

Now over to you: What are your best tips to navigate office politics? Share away, please!

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