I know, I know – the word “politics” is an actual swear word these days. And office politics? Jesus, I’d rather be force-fed a montage of Trump rally footage than admit that my workplace is charged with hidden motives and egos.
Over the last eight years, I’ve had the unique experience of working in a variety of industries. The only thing all three jobs had in common was dealing with office politics. Here’s the thing, though. If you admit there are politics in your workplace, that doesn’t automatically mean that everyone you work with is trying to screw you over. In fact, I’m certain navigating office politics has been central to my biggest professional wins, mostly because I accepted early on that they were a natural part of the workplace.
To be fair, I completely lucked out. My first job out of college was working for an organization called The White House Project. The sole purpose of the organization was to equip more women with leadership skills to succeed in politics and in business. We literally had an entire training called, ‘Navigating the Political Landscape of the Workplace.’ I remember thinking, “How cynical. Surely grownups don’t treat each other like cliquey high school girls. Isn’t this the ‘real world?'” That youthful optimism lasted five seconds into my first training as I watched each attendee stand up and tell a personal anecdote. One woman spoke up about her experience with a real-life office bully. Another confessed that she’d lost out on promotions because she struggled to build relationships with the leadership team.
The below tips are combinations of what I picked up during my time at The White House Project and my own professional experiences. I hope they provide some guardrails as you navigate the sometimes icky albeit innate politics of your workplace.
Through conversations I’ve had with other young professionals, it seems that most feel the way I did when I first graduated college. They are either in denial that politics exist in the workplace or they believe the best places to work are void of them. I’m not arguing that everyone you work with has malicious intent or is secretly trying to hold you back. But let’s get real – people are complicated. Motives are complicated. Emotions are complicated. Ways of handling stressful situations are complicated. All of these individual complications make any type of relationship extremely difficult to navigate, let alone a career-orientated one that involves elements of power and pride.
Of course, there’s a spectrum for the political toxicity of a workplace. Most offices have a healthy political environment where passion, competition, and ambition collide to drive great work. Unfortunately, there are many companies on the opposite side of the spectrum where bullies and the I-take-credit-for-other-peoples-work employees thrive. The important thing is to take the time to assess your workplace and know where you land.
Remember that, although the fuel that charges someone’s political behavior comes from a personal place, you should never take it personally. There’s a certain type of human who finds pleasure in dramatizing the day-to-day events of the office, turning the most mundane days into some sort of a TMZ episode. You know them. They’re that coworker whispering snide remarks when someone else gets promoted. They tend to be more exclusive than collaborative when it comes to group work, often more obsessed with getting credit than the quality of the work. Even the most objective business decisions are a personal affront to them individually. Essentially, they’re insecure about their place in life and that has nothing to do with you. Don’t let them burn you out.
Now that you’ve come to terms with the fact that there are politics at play, don’t assume the worst of your colleagues or amplify the political dynamics. You know that co-worker we just talked about in #2? Don’t become them. Indulging in office gossip is easy to do. It’s also the quickest way to build fake bonds, amplify your insecurities and create distrust. When you feel like you’re getting dragged into drama, refocus on your work and what you’re trying to achieve professionally. It’ll become your north star. It’ll also make you stand out to leadership.
If your workplace falls into the healthily competitive category, awesome! This is actually a good thing. A healthy political environment, although tricky to navigate, means you’re surrounded by ambitious people. Now it’s time to hone in on what drives that competition. Is job success reliant on the quality of your ideas? Job titles? Managerial style? Once you’ve tapped into the underlying context of the office politics, you can refocus your work in a way that will advance your work and contribute to bigger business goals.
For example, say you realize that job titles mean everything when it comes to working on the best projects. Your next steps would be 1. talk to your boss about including job title growth in your annual goal setting process. 2. Find someone in the organization who has the job title you want and ask them how they got there. 3. Seek out constructive feedback and spend time developing the skill sets you need for your desired job title.
If your workplace falls into the toxic category, make a game plan to leave. In most cases, the toxicity starts at the top and trickles down. There won’t be much you can do to change it and life is too short to be surrounded by grown-ass bullies. In the meantime, make besties with your HR department.
Allie is a Minneapolis-based digital marketer, lucky enough to make a living by hanging out with really smart people and coming up with disruptive, technology driven ideas at Space150. Her passions include traveling, coffee, books, feminism, obsessing over the dog she just saw on the street corner and trying not to blush at inconvenient moments.
Photo by Anastasia Galka Photograhy
BY Allie Arends - March 27, 2017
Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.