Kelly Isley

How To Successfully Navigate Office Politics

Successful leaders have survived their fair share of political drama. The reality: politics can be a killer of productivity and even careers, in the most extreme cases. So how can leaders of all ages avoid them?

For answers, let’s take a look at Karen Dillon’s guide for Harvard Business Review titled “Office Politics” that can keep us from crossing over to the dark side.

Scenario One: It Looks Like A Clique – How can you gain influence when the cool leaders band together?

Background – Office cliques form—and thrive, for many reasons. Sometimes, for instance, you’ll find bands of colleagues who have moved together from other companies or organizations, particularly in industries that are worlds unto themselves, such as media and technology (and it makes sense: as leadership expert Herminia Ibarra points out, research consistently shows that the key to getting a new job is networking). When people know one another socially or from past jobs, they naturally have stronger, deeper ties.

How to adapt:

A. Work with the existing clique. Don’t let the golden children get all the heat and light. Even if you’re not invited to contribute to their big projects, express interest in them. Leadership consultant Ron Ashkenas advises, “You can say to your boss or colleagues, I know I’m not on that assignment, but could I sit in on a status meeting to learn more about it?” And once you’re in the room, offer to pitch in.

B. Form your own alliances or coalitions. Maybe chumminess at the office feels artificial to you or seems like a waste of time. You may be thinking, “Why put aside my “real” work just to make friends?” But the reality is, it’ll help you do your work more effectively. First, you’ll gain support for your ideas. No matter how respected you might be individually, you’ll always bolster your case by lining up allies.

Scenario Two: Big Bad Bully – Can you change the dynamic?

Background – Bullies are more prevalent then we once thought, according to a study by Christine Pearson at the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona and Christine Porath at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business: 78% of participants who believed they’d been treated rudely by colleagues said they felt a decreased commitment to their work, with a direct negative effect on their performance. You—and your work—don’t have to suffer.

How to adapt:

A. Consider the bullies’ intentions. Some bullies don’t mean to be bullies. So make sure you aren’t projecting a motive that isn’t there.

B. Offer an olive branch.
Disarm your bully by expressing your desire to have a good relationship with him/her.

C. Find safety in numbers
. Although you don’t want to create a rival gang to counter the office bully, there is power in people banding together to support one another publicly.

D. Break the pattern. How do you put an end to this destructive dance? The easiest thing to change is your own behavior.

Scenario Three: Time For The Office Outing: Forcing the fun factor or looking through a networking lens?

Background: Your company has a couple of splashy employee events each year—and that kind of “forced fun” is not your cup of tea. You like most of your colleagues, but you dread the thought of trust falls, or pelting one another with paint balls, or laughing politely at your colleague’s colorful jokes over charred burgers and potato salad. You’d rather skip it, but everyone is expected to attend, so your absence would be duly noted.

How to adapt:

A. Find a comfortable way to participate. If you’re fortunate, you welcome the opportunity to hang out with your coworkers because you’re fond of them. However, even if that’s not the case, says leadership coach Susan Alvey, a principal at Pemberton Coaching, assume the most positive perspective you can. “Instead of looking for the first moment to escape, think about how you can have a good time.”

B. Focus on connecting. View the outing as a personal-growth exercise, Clark advises: “Use it to hone one of the most talked about, but least practiced, skills in corporate life: asking questions that draw people out and then really listening to their answers.”

C. Don’t check your inhibitions at the door.
Of course, as you’re trying to relax and be yourself, you’ll want to maintain some sense of decorum. We’re all adults—and most of us know our limits—yet we’ve all seen people have too many drinks at office events.

D. If you mess up, take responsibility for your actions. So what if you wake up the following morning and realize that you may have crossed the line at the office party? “If you do something embarrassing, own up to it,” Alvey says. You don’t need to send out a mass e-mail to everyone in the company. But have the courage to apologize to anyone who witnessed your behavior.

What political issue can you tackle in the next 10 days? Identify and address one issue. Follow this action with a quick evaluation on how the solution positively impacted your interactions with fellow leaders or business colleagues.


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