The workplace can be a highly political environment.  Politics generally tends to very much be centred on the allocation of scarce resources. So if we apply this to the organisational context, resources like money, titles, staff, and power are scarce, which of course is going to lead to tension and conflict between fiercely driven and ambitious individuals.

As junior members in an organisation, we’d like to think we can avoid workplace politics and actually at this early point in our career it’s not necessary for us to understand what it is.  However this couldn’t be further from the truth. As individual’s fresh out of university, we’re seen as relatively vulnerable, keen, desperate to make friends and impress, so far more willing to be dragged into the politics of the workplace. People are always keen to take the new grad under their wing and mould them into a mini version of themselves.

However for the sake of our career development, it’s so important we don’t succumb to that stereotype. Sure, if you play your cards right, and align yourself with the right people; you will most likely progress further and quickly. But if you don’t play your cards right, you may ruin your career before it’s even started. So whilst avoiding work politics may be a little farfetched, being able to navigate your way around such an environment is not a choice, but a necessity.

Why does workplace politics arise?

  • Hierarchy in the workplace means some people have more power and influence than others
  • Promotion is important to most people in an organisation, not just because it reflects career progression but also the associated rise in pay. This can create competition between individuals, especially if it’s made clear that not everyone can be promoted. In addition people may start acting in their own personal interest and not in alignment the teams wider objectives
  • Decisions at work are both influenced by work related and personal factors, which can also cause issues.
  • Organisations tend to have limited resources which foster competitive and sometimes aggressive behaviour as everyone seeks to get their way, even if against the greater good

How you navigate the politics in your workplace largely depends on the type of political organisation you work for. Kathleen Kelley Reardon, an expert in workplace politics, listed four in her Harvard Business Review article:

Minimally political companies: In these organisations, what you see for the most part is what you get. Rules and procedures are made clear, are respected and tend to be followed. Your team feels like a mini family, and little knowledge of workplace politics won’t hold you back. Here, you can be yourself and go far.

Moderately political organisations:  Workplace politics in these firms are quite minimal, but when it does exist it’s very under the radar. Great effort is made for it not to surface because of the strong team mentality. Little pockets of political activity do exist but can be easily managed and not to the detriment of others.

The highly political arena: Formal rules take a back seat and the influence of those in power come to the forefront. Cliques emerge and you see this divide between the in groups and out groups. Who you know becomes way more important than what you know.

Pathologically political organisations: In organisations like this, nearly every goal is achieved by going around people or formal procedures and there is a great deal of mistrust amongst individuals.  People end up spending far more time watching their backs than actually doing things to progress their career.

Tips for navigating the political work environment

  • Observe the set up:  Observe how things work, which means understanding the office culture and the history of the team you’re in.

Who are the real influencers, the individuals with powers but don’t use it? Who is the people champion, the one that encourages everyone? Who are the real brains behind major decisions? (Most often, it’s not the person who technically has the most power)

  • Get to know the team dynamics, observe the relationships within the team.

Are there cliques and what are they based on? What do people within the “in group” have in common? Who doesn’t get along with whom and why? What is the basis for the forming of relationships? Friendship, mutual respect or manipulation?

  • Be collaborative and build your network, avoid working in a silo.

Build relationships with people that have informal as well as formal power (people with informal power tend to have friends in high places). Ensure that your network consists of people from all levels of the hierarchy, so not just junior like yourself.

  • Don’t get personal

We spend majority of our time in the workplace, so naturally we will have our moments with people. Our colleagues will do something by accident (or on purpose in the case of work politics) that will anger us, and we’ll be tempted to cuss them all the way out. However we shouldn’t. Whilst in the moment, that release of frustration will be great for you, your colleague and those who witness it will never forget and that can be detrimental to your career, especially when you’re at the beginning. Before you know it, your little outburst will be the topic of the work group chat, and there will be this perception of you that will be hard to shrug off.

Note: That colleague that vexed you, let karma deal with their clart 😀

  • Don’t take sides

In a corporate environment, it is common to see two powerful people at odds with each other, and you’ll see some team members align themselves with one of the two individuals. As a junior member in your team, you may feel obliged to as well, but actually I believe you shouldn’t. Remain neutral and if anyone tries to sway your opinion or ask what you think about a certain person, just explain that you’re focused on your work and trying to achieve the team’s goal and objectives.

Written by Rene Germain


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