Quite often important soft skills like ability to maintain positive interpersonal relationships are clubbed under the generic header of office politics. I don’t entirely agree to this classification. At the very least, this nomenclature is a little misleading.
In popular discourse, nobody ever appreciates office politics. It is a dirty word that nobody wants to be associated with. But often, they are. Some do it because they see politics as a trade-off to get ahead or reach common organizational goals. Some, on the other hand, do it because there is no other value they can deliver.
Often, the former is not exactly ‘politicking’, it is just understanding when and how to propose your ideas. It is not about maintaining positive relationships with selective people. It is about knowing the art of negotiation. It is often just good, professional, mature behaviour.
When does office politics become harmful? When it smears reputations, rewards or penalizes individuals on the basis of the ‘cliques’ they are (or aren’t) part of, or adversely affects employee morales, interpersonal relationships, and general working environment.
Sometimes people give in to cliques and harmful office politics even if they don’t want to. This could be because corporate culture discourse has made it sound like a necessary evil. But when faced with this choice as a mid-level manager, I asked myself if it was possible to thrive and succeed without participating in harmful politics. Over the next few years, some of my colleagues and I saw that it could be done. It needs hard work and a high emotional quotient, but it is not impossible.
Here are some steps that helped us navigate our careers without pandering to high school cliques and harming reputations. They could help you too.
Nothing speaks like good work. Be accountable for what you deliver, do it on time, and become a reliable teammate. It is hard to drag down a star employee, even one who is not interested in being part of cliques.
Something has to be said about the value of directness at the workplace. Do you feel you have delivered everything you need to in order to land that raise or promotion? Ask for it. Many professionals seem to find it more convenient to pander to bosses or signal the intent through cliques. But for someone who doesn’t want to engage in unnecessary politics, working for that promotion and asking for it are much easier bets.
One of the primary reasons why people indulge in harmful politics is to be part of cliques and find support groups when they need it. You can achieve this conveniently by becoming the bearer of gossip at the lunch table. Or you could just give credit where it is due, keep your commitments, and be nice to people irrespective of their stake in your career or their designation. The choice is yours.
Having strong allies at the workplace doesn’t just work in terms of office politics. It also helps you lighten the load with some light-hearted banter. That doesn’t mean you need to play the popularity contest. All you need is to connect with people and engage them in ways they understand and appreciate. It could mean a helping hand on a tough day, a joke or two across the bay, or just being there for people when they need someone to listen without judgment.
It is important to have close allies at work, sure. But it is also important to understand the difference between best friends and best work friends. In hard times, individuals are often on their own. It is also hard to predict a person’s integrity when things get tough and the choice is between friendship and loyalty vs. personal ambition. Chat, be nice, and connect deeply. But resist the temptation to tell your workmates about weekend escapades that could be frowned upon or how annoyed you are with the boss. Trust people to be inherently good. But measuring your words and staying cautious in how much you share never hurt anyone.
Harmful office politics is a slippery slope. It makes work and working relationships more complicated than they need to be. Performance and professional behaviour can replace it, often with the same results. The choice, as always, is yours.