By Perminus Wainaina
A while back, I received an email from Risper, who works as a human resource manager in a marketing company.
Risper was concerned that since the new HR Assistant – Mary, joined the organization, she had been left out of every important decision.
Risper wrote, “Mary joined the firm six months ago. Immediately she joined, she made friends with everybody –even my boss, who I only talk to once in a while.
After her probation period was over, she was given a two-year contract (I was given one when I joined). Now, it feels like she’s taking over my job. The boss and managerial staff talk to her before they include me in the discussions.
This week, we employed a few more people, and I had little input in the matter.
Even after they joined, it’s Mary who handled the onboarding process.
I’m afraid Mary is slowly taking over my job.”
What Risper is going through is something most professionals have experienced, in the form of office politics – where employees undermine and even backstab other employees with the hopes of getting ahead in their career.
Office politics is something that can either work to your advantage or disadvantage. Although it is hard to admit it, there is a lot more that goes into being successful at work, than merely being good at the tasks you are assigned.
What is office politics?
Whenever you bring up the term ‘office politics,’ it is usually taken as a negative statement. Most professionals view it as a way to backstab or attack other professionals in the workplace to get ahead in their career, cut off competition, or to ensure job security.
However, it is much more than that.
Essentially, office politics is the process and behaviour in interactions at the workplace revolving around power and authority.
In Risper’s case, Mary seems to be getting ahead in her career – by directly going to the boss, and influencing decisions.
In many situations, employees try to get ahead in their professions by politicking. I know of companies where P.A’s, Drivers, Receptionists and other ‘low ranking’ staff wield a lot of power.
The good thing about office politics is that you can use it to get information through the grapevine.
The question then turns to, should you participate? And what is the best approach to ensure that it works for your benefit?
1. Don’t Seclude Yourself
The ability to get along well with others is a skill you must endeavour to have if you want to progress in your career. It is important to have relationships that cut across various levels in the organization – from the lowest to the highest-ranking member of staff.
Some of the powerful members of staff are your juniors as they have the ear of the decision-makers.
Having cordial relationships with everyone ensures that you are not isolated. You are also able to get information from different sources. This way you have an objective assessment of the organization as opposed to an individual who confines themselves to certain people or groups.
The biggest payoff of having relationships that cut across is that you will always be in the know. While others are caught by surprise by changes such as retrenchment or redundancy in some of the roles in the organization, the information will readily be available to you through your informal networks.
2. Don’t be naïve
It’s naïve to think people get promoted because of hard work. A good part of the time, you get promoted because of the relationships you have.
Since career advancements are to an extent based on relationships, you should cultivate them.
At the workplace, three key types of relations help with politicking. These are;
Operational networks –These are the people you need to get your tasks done.
Developmental networks –These are the colleagues you turn to for support or advice.
Strategic networks –These are the professionals who can help you both define and succeed in your career. It could be your current boss, former boss or any other decision maker.
What are the safe ways to play office politics?
1. Don’t shy away from company events
An upcoming Christmas party is a good way to enjoy yourself while at the same time, build relationships with your colleagues.
This will help you bridge different groups of people and cross organizational, geographic and functional lines. You will be able to understand the formal and informal structures so you can get good intelligence, insight and support when you need it.
2. Volunteer in activities beyond your job description
If you share your knowledge with others and do this well, you will never be redundant.
While it might seem counterintuitive to help others learn the skills and information that could otherwise distinguish you from everyone else, doing so builds trust with your coworkers that could lead to them being your ally down the road.
Additionally, these people may be willing to pass along information to you, whether it’s a tip on how to do your job better or a heads up about a coming organizational shift at your company.
3. Don’t be the source of gossip – but also don’t ignore it
It’s tempting to trash someone you’re competing for promotion against while they’re not around, but speaking negatively about your coworkers can do more harm than good.
People are smart enough to figure out that if you’re giving them the dirt about another one of your coworkers, you’re likely to do the same thing to them.
When someone instigates a conversation where you would be inclined to negatively talk about another coworker and you don’t take the bait, you send a very strong message that you can be trusted in the other direction too.
And when it comes to speaking negatively about those in power, it’s best to be very careful. Assume everything you say at work will be heard by the boss.
In a world where relationships matter, your qualifications and hard work will only take you so far. Just like the lone buffalo which gets attacked by the lioness in the jungle, if you seclude yourself, you may end up losing on a lot – including your job.
My advice to you would be this: Focus on your ‘art’ and not the politics. This is because wherever people are together, there will always exist politics. Ignore it at your peril.
Perminus Wainaina is the C.E.O and Managing Partner at Corporate Staffing Services, a leading HR consultancy firm based in Westlands. Through personalized career coaching he assists mid-level and senior professionals get solutions to complex and challenging career issues that they are facing. Click here for more on career coaching.