Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on September 12, 2022.
I am frequently asked how I survived office politics as I advanced at my company from process engineer to chief executive officer. I not only survived, but thrived. I wrote an article on office politics in August 2016. This is an update of that article.
Office politics can have a negative impact on the people playing the game, their co-workers and the organization itself. There are those who feel that the only way they can advance within an organization is at the expense of others—making themselves look good, while making others look bad. They deflect responsibility and often blame others, both peers and subordinates, for their own failures.
They take undue credit for the success of initiatives beyond their contributions, and misrepresent the facts to cast themselves in a favorable light. They are usually good at “managing up.” To the senior leadership of the organization, they heap undo criticism of their peers. They destroy trust, and when trust is destroyed, the organization becomes toxic and dysfunctional.
I have often wondered why bosses tolerate the actions of employees who play office politics. Either they are blind to it or think that they will achieve better results than if the organization functioned as a high performance team in which employees trusted each other. They are wrong.
A boss will often counsel an employee who plays office politics to get them to change, with mixed results. The employee will often deny their destructive behavior. Many times their behavior is due to their personality. They won’t change. This is who they are.
Eventually, employees who play office politics are either terminated, or depart on their own when their political gamesmanship has been uncovered and is no longer useful to them at their current company.
So, as an employee within an organization, how should you defend against those who are playing political games to undermine you?
There is an old saying, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer,” ascribed by some to Chinese general and military strategist Sun Tzu in his book “The Art of War” (circa 400 BC), and by others to the 16th century political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli in his book, “The Prince.” This saying can also be applied to office politics.
By keeping your adversaries close, you can get insight into what they are doing and thinking. You also have the opportunity to sway their thinking, and show them that undermining you is not a productive use of their time. You may be able to co-op them, and get them to be one of your supporters rather than a detractor. However, once they violate your trust, you may never fully trust them again. Once lost, trust is very difficult to regain.
Did I ever confront the individual playing politics at my expense? No. I felt that would be counterproductive. Whether or not to confront someone is a personal decision, and depends on each individual situation.
I built a strong informal organization through which I got things accomplished. I built alliances with others by helping them accomplish their objectives. Through these alliances, I was made aware of political attacks that were not visible to me. I did the same for those with whom I had developed alliances.
So, how can you thrive in a political environment? Meet your commitments to others. Build trust with your peers. Develop alliances. Keep your adversaries close. Build political capital. Most importantly, do your job and achieve results, and let those results speak for themselves.
Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.