4 lessons you can learn about office politics by watching Game of Thrones

Joffrey Lannister of King's Landing

If you don’t like office politics, you’re not alone. They can be frustrating, complex and even unfair.

But the idea that you can somehow avoid office politics and rely solely on your good performance for professional advancement is an idea as mythical as the land of Westeros itself.

The George R.R. Martin brainchild, which will premiere its fifth season on 12 April, has provided audiences with many memorable moments over the past five years, some of which can be applied to navigating the workplace dynamics of every-day corporate politics.

Before you sit back to watch the latest battles, betrayal and mayhem unfold on Game of Thrones this year, take a moment to consider four lessons you can take from the first four seasons about how to play the game of swivel chairs… and win.

You’ve got to play to get paid

Varys, the enigmatic spymaster, once asked the question, “Why is it always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your game of thrones?”

In other words, the people who care least to participate in the political games tend to be the people who suffer most because of them.

Instead of being the passive recipient of someone else’s strategy, take a conscious interest in the political climate of your office. Create relationships with key decision makers and senior stakeholders in order to progress your career, and manage the potential external challenges that may prevent you from putting your ideas front and centre before they become roadblocks.

Take a note from Sam Bacharach, co-founder of the leadership development organisation Bacharach Leadership Group, who believes that “micro-political skills” are what provide ambitious professionals with the tools to move ideas into implementation.

“Often we think of the great idea we have, but we don’t put ourselves in the shoes of the other [person] and say to ourselves, 'What are the six or seven things that they’re going to say about our ideas?” Bacharach tells Inc Magazine.

“Anticipating the obstacles your idea might face when you present it, is a political skill that can help you get across the finish line.”

Become friends with your enemies

Any seasoned business professional knows that working with difficult people is a natural hazard of the workplace. When these people stand between you and a job well done, then they need to be managed… carefully. Be polite, smile warmly and never let them know how you really feel.

To quote Sir Petyr Baelish, “Always keep your foes confused.” If you can play the part of someone who isn’t affected by the negative actions of others, you win the upper hand and you will be respected for that.

No matter how much someone may deserve it, a moment’s indiscretion will make you into the unprofessional one, and this can seriously affect future career prospects. This is the single most important aspect of office politics, according to Bill Gentry and Jean Brittain Leslie, of the Centre for Creative Leadership.

“Learning to manage office politics is part-and-parcel of leadership development,” they tell Forbes.com.

“It’s about building and strengthening relationships, knowing yourself well, having a good sense about what’s going on around you… As a result, you’ll have what it takes to get the resources, access and information you need to lead effectively.”

While this is sage advice, never make the mistake of confusing your friends with your foes. Eddard Stark did and we know how well that worked out for him…

Respect the hierarchy

Remember that time when Tyrion Lannister used his cunning and his skill to defend King’s Landing against Stannis Baratheon in the lengthy battle for Blackwater, then was lauded with praise, showered with riches and lived happily ever after? No, because it didn’t happen.

Instead, his father, Tywin Lannister, rode in at the eleventh hour, defeated the remaining opposition and claimed a victory that was not entirely his. In the end, the real winner wasn’t even Tywin so much as the hierarchy from which he directly benefited, and it’s as real in the office as it appears to be in Westeros.

Stanford University professor Bob Sutton has made the subject of social hierarchy the centre of his research, and has some sobering news on the subject for professionals everywhere: Get used to it. The fact is that organisations need hierarchy, because they need structure and leadership.

The focus shouldn’t be on abolishing hierarchy. Sutton writes on his LinkedIn article that this is the wrong goal. “Your job is to build the best hierarchy you can,” 

Unfortunately, it won’t be perfect, and that means that managers will take credit for your accomplishments sometimes, but the alternative can mean pandemonium… or unemployment. And speaking of…

Mind the power struggle

Lord Petyr Baelish once famously said that “chaos is a ladder”. If you find yourself in a company long enough, you may see a power struggle or two in senior management. They are stressful, chaotic and often draw out tensions between parties that affect everyone else in the business, but they can also be an opportunity.

Resist the urge to take sides, regardless of any loyalty you may feel towards one person over the other. Instead, see the conflict as an opportunity to show both parties how invaluable you are.

Bill Gentry and Jean Brittain Leslie say that if your goal is to progress your career, then build strategic networks on both sides.  

Politically savvy professionals have mastered the art of “social-astuteness.” That is, “the ability to read and anticipate situations… allowing you to prepare, adapt and tailor your behaviour based on the people and conditions around you.”

Regardless of who wins the battle, you will have proven yourself to be calm, level-headed and most notable of all, an important asset.

It’s no wonder that business leaders often make the transition into actual politics, like former Massachusetts governor and 2012 Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, founder of the private equity firm Bain Capital. The two ecosystems share a lot in common, and if you want to survive either one, then you need to learn how to play the game.

...Dragons also help. 

October 2021
October 2021

Read the October 2021 issue of INTHEBLACK magazine.

Each month we select the must-reads from the current issue of INTHEBLACK. Read more now.