Only a few weeks after meeting and working with Nour, she sent me the note below which she allowed me to publish as part of this blog which I am dedicating to her.
Although I have taught many people in different environments during my career, this note from Nour made a real impact as did she herself when she first met me. Nour is a young and highly educated woman with sky-high ambitions who never stopped smiling when we were together. Yet there was a certain sadness about her, as if she painted a smile on her face to draw attention away from her heart-rending gaze. The reason? Perhaps she was deeply affected by office politics, the first ugly professional truth she encountered when entering the workplace.
Office politics are an unavoidable part of organizational behavior, a game which we all must play to a greater or lesser degree. In their book ”Enlightened Office Politics”, Michael and Deborah Dobson define the phenomenon as: “The information and sometimes emotion-driven process of allocating limited resources and working out goals, decisions, and actions in an environment of people with different and competing interests and personalities.” Early on in my career, I soon realized that promotions are driven as much (if not more) by office politics as by first-class work.
Why is there such a thing as office politics? Here is a list of possible reasons from my own experience as well as that of colleagues and writers:
– Jealous employees
– Cynical employees (more dangerous – they know it all)
– Pervasive gossip culture
– No or insufficient performance feedback
– Ambitious employees who take shortcuts by disregarding company policy
– Lazy superstars who want recognition without the hard work that goes with it
Harvard Business Review has even published a guide to political astuteness in the workplace with many more examples than these. Put simply, office politics happen whenever two or more people have conflicting or competing interests. Its type and intensity vary with organizational culture, written vs. unwritten rules, and how decisions over power and influence are made.
It is easy to tell an organization whose office politics are well-advanced. Just look for the following symptoms:
… silent quota for leadership positions, driven mainly by ethnicity or self-selection
… complacent, mediocre, and incompetent leadership, measured against acknowledged best practice
… submissive leadership traits camouflaged by compliance
… women in top management positions who fail to support (or actively block) other females
Why does all of this bother us, though? And it certainly does! People get mad about decisions regardless of whether they are affected or not; they develop an urge to make critical comments in public, ridiculing or belittling others simply to prove that they are right; and they become angry in front of other colleagues or – even worse – clients.
The source of all of this annoyance could be an underlying discomfort with the ambiguity and volatility of unwritten rules, with logic behind decisions being thrown out of the window and questions over who gets what, when, how, and why remaining unanswered and festering.
These are some of my (and others’) experiences. It is important though to focus on lessons learned from them to give hope and a way forward. HBR likens playing office politics to selling one’s soul. But viewed dispassionately (which is difficult for most) office politics should be viewed as a skill to be learned and practiced early on in one’s career. We should practice them subtly and artfully rather than by force. Those whose careers have been adversely affected by office politics should view their experience dispassionately and with a sense of tranquility, rather than with a self-pity which legitimizes the worst perpetrators of office politics.
For those about to engage seriously with office politics, good advice would include seeking two mentors and getting to understand well the personalities within an organization. There will be people who will impress you and you will hear stories that make you dream of what life could be like. No harm. However, do not forget your unique definition of success and remember that success is measured by what matters for you, not others.
When playing politics, always pick your battles which should be few and far between. Not answering is sometimes the right answer, while not answering immediately is always the right answer. Remember that outputs are more important than inputs, with intelligent productivity more important than blind hard work.
Other worthwhile advice includes:
Focusing on your key differentiator that you (and others) know sets you apart being (and joy being) a go-to person who can get things done for other people
Remembering the power of the word “no” at all times. The consequences of using it should be overestimated
Remaining professional at all times if only for yourself
Being clear at an early stage how far you want to ascend the corporate ladder and by what means you want to achieve this
Constantly reviewing your career strategy against where you currently stand in your career
Balancing longevity in role with the need to move on, up or sideways as the need arises
Above all, office politics require resilience. Do not allow the workplace to break you but look after yourself at all times. Take a break: every day, every week, every month, and every year. And to Nour specifically: one day you will feel lightness and enlightenment, selfishness and selflessness – for what matters most is you.
On a final note, I have not introduced to office politics the special challenges that women face in navigating the political fray. This is for another day…
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