It's a jungle in there

Office politics has bred a new predator: The workplace psychopath.

7 ways to win at the game of office politics.

“One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”

So said the philosopher Plato, but he might equally have been talking about working in a modern-day office, where turf wars, backstabbing and the single-minded pursuit of personal advantage are frequently endemic.

According to UK-based executive education and research organisation Roffey Park, politicking has grown from being a fairly peripheral issue to the single biggest cause of stress in the workplace today.

It has even bred a new predator, dubbed the “workplace psychopath”, the majority of whom are not serial killers but smart and charming bosses and colleagues who manipulate, steal ideas, bully and sometimes destroy those around them to achieve their goals.

Andrew [not his real name] had been a well-regarded art director at a small Australian publishing company when it was suddenly sold to another firm. He and one of his younger artists were retained by the new organisation, but almost on arrival Andrew sensed that not only didn’t he fit in, but that his new boss seemed to dislike him.

Andrew had never been one for politicking, instead preferring to let his work do the talking. However, the more he tried to avoid conflict with the superior, the more uncomfortable the workplace atmosphere became. In contrast, the other artist had struck up a good rapport, not only with Andrew’s boss, but many others in the company as well.

“I didn’t think there was anything wrong with my work,” Andrew says. “She [his boss] just didn’t like me and I couldn’t figure out why. My ideas were dismissed at meetings, often in front of other managers, but she’d always give Tim [his subordinate] a good hearing.”

"Turf wars and backstabbing are rife in the modern-day office."

The difference between the two was that Tim had gone out of his way to listen and get to know as many people as he could, with a view to learning what the company really expected from its new design team. Andrew, on the other hand, had grown used to people at his old firm just listening to him.

“Instead of isolating myself, I eventually started to mix more with others – everyone from the ground up,” Andrew says. “I soon realised important design decisions in that company were usually discussed and agreed on. It was a totally different culture to what I’d been used to and by failing to adapt, I’d not only alienated my new boss, but just about everyone else.”

Of course, many refuse to play the political game, instead focusing on their jobs and working harder in the hope of being noticed and better rewarded for their efforts. But sometimes these people can end up being overlooked or ignored while others are fast-tracked straight to the top.

It seems that the very fact people plot and scheme at work illustrates one of the truths of politicking – that it delivers results. Notably, however, there is a recent school of thought that being a good office politician is potentially less of a negative than once thought.

A poll conducted by the Warwick Business School in the UK revealed that astute managers are now rejecting the “dark art” notions of office politics in favour of creating partnerships, building relationships and developing constructive political skills that allow them to influence people and achieve outcomes that are good for themselves as well as in the best interests of the organisation.

The key is the old maxim: “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” One of the best ways to stay clear of negative politicking is not to hide under the radar but get to know the politically powerful people in the organisation. Be courteous but don’t align yourself with one group or another. Instead, become part of multiple networks, understand the goals that motivate them and above all, do not pass on gossip or become involved in interpersonal conflicts. When voicing objections or criticism, always take an organisational perspective, not a personal one.

Also, don’t rely on confidentiality – assume things will be disclosed and decide what you should reveal accordingly. If you believe a matter will come back to haunt you, make sure you keep a record, either via email or document. Nothing saves a job or career more than a written record, and it is also an effective way to highlight your own accomplishments.

In his new book Office Politics: How to Thrive in a World of Lying, Backstabbing and Dirty Tricks, the author, British psychologist Oliver James, maintains that “it’s absolutely unavoidable that people will find themselves in competition with one another. Interests at work frequently do not coincide.”

Whether they actually collide will depend on how you approach the game. International recruitment firm Robert Half advises:

  • Don’t say anything about colleagues you wouldn’t say directly to them
  • Separate tabloid-style gossip from news that could directly affect your career
  • Aim to build solid connections with colleagues at all levels and corners of the organisation, not just those at the top
  • Avoid sticky situations by remaining aware of and sensitive to the tacit rules that often influence employee behaviour. Careful observation can keep you from stepping on toes or breaking an unspoken chain of command
  • Although interacting with a mix of personalities is challenging, gain an edge by taking note of how people in your office prefer to communicate
  • Small squabbles can turn into rivalries, so don’t let conflict fester. Be straightforward with your concerns but always focus on facts, not feelings.
  • Because all politics is local, interpersonal skills matter and small talk can be important. Taking an interest in co-workers’ lives can help you connect on a basic level, diffuse tension and firm up collegial friendships.

Have an office politics story to share? Post a comment below.

Do your skills measure up? Assess yourself with CPA Australia's Career Guidance System.