How to Navigate Office Politics

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on October 2, 2018

I am periodically asked how to successfully deal with office politics. I often share an article I wrote in August 2016 on this subject. This is an update of that article.

Throughout my career, I have watched the game of office politics play out in many organizations, including my own. Office politics can have negative implications for the people playing the game, their co-workers and the organization itself.

Why do people play office politics? They 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 undo credit for the success of initiatives beyond their contributions, and misrepresent the facts to cast themselves in a favorable light. They are good at “managing up.” To the senior leadership of the organization, they heap undo criticism on their peers. They destroy trust, and when trust is destroyed, the organization becomes toxic and dysfunctional.

I have often wondered why the boss puts up with 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 performed as a high-performance team in which employees trusted each other. They are wrong.

Bosses will often try to counsel employees who play office politics to get them to change, with mixed results. The employee will often deny their destructive behavior. Many times, their political behavior is due to their personality. They won’t change. That is who they are.

I have written extensively on the importance of tone and culture within organizations. Those managers who undercut their peers and play political games are setting the wrong tone and culture, which will be emulated by those within their group, undermining trust with employees in other groups. Silos are created and information is not shared, to the detriment of the entire organization.

As part of every manager’s performance review, tone and culture need to be assessed, including that of the CEO. If the tone and culture are wrong, regardless if the manager is currently achieving results, the results will not be sustainable.

Eventually, employees who play office politics are recognized for who they are and the damage they cause. They 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.

On various occasions during my career, I have been the subject of political attacks by others. Did I ever confront the individual? No. I felt that would be counter-productive. Whether or not to confront someone is a personal decision, and depends on each individual situation.

How did I successfully cope with these attacks? 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. Did this strategy work? I was the one who rose up through the organization, not them.

So, how can you rise above office politics? 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. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Follow Silverman on LinkedIn here and on Twitter, @StanSilverman.