I was on an overseas work trip and being the first time in that country, I asked my local colleague about the dynamics at work. He said “It’s the same everywhere, office politics is global”. He concluded by adding that he was not good at it. I am yet to meet a person who says they are good at office politics. It is not a skill that we dare declare in public or display on our CV. But think about it, if you are not good at it, you most probably will be doing a disservice to your career and may not have reached where you are today. If you haven’t gone anywhere yet, then you know why, if you have just begun your career, please quickly comprehend and get comfortable with this new weapon.
So what is office politics? Many of us believe it is a series of coups that your (not-so) well-wishers are plotting against you constantly to usurp your career. These people could be your peers, reportees, and bosses to name a few. We can also add HR, Finance or other members of the organisation who do not directly work with you but who you think are against you all the time. Office politics is a convenient phrase to absolve ourselves of any responsibility when something goes against us or somebody else gains in the corporate ladder. Just think about it the other way round. Ever wonder why others gain all the time against your interests? They must be working hard towards getting things done in line with their plans. Somebody must have faith in their actions, words or capabilities to be ruling things in their favor? Or they must be satisfying and delivering consistently to the key stake holders when you and I were lazing.
I define ‘office politics’ as ‘an engaging activity to take care of self-interests’. Am I trying to give it a positive spin? Perhaps yes, and why not? Many of us thrive on it. For some of us, it is a kind of active lobbying against us when in fact we are sincerely working hard But let’s not give ourselves the clean chit. I would like to believe all of us indulge in politics knowingly and unknowingly (giving some of you the benefit of doubt). Picture this, your boss/colleague comes and asks your opinion about another colleague and peer who you don’t like. Instead of ducking it or providing an unbiased opinion, you run down the person based on the one or two experiences you have had with them. So the person carries that information provided by you. Similarly let’s presume they must be seeking opinions from others about you & me too? What do you think is likely to happen when they seek opinions about you from people with whom you don’t have a great relationship? It’s payback time, right? That’s how the vicious circle of office politics turns around. It’s always a battle between our promoters and our detractors at the back end. We can’t be physically present at every official social function, lunch and coffee break, hallway conversations or closed door conversations to defend ourselves. So it’s important to build our network in the organisation in such a manner that promotes ourselves and to get the better of the so called office politics.
I was once struck with a draconian boss as were my peers who were all praying for a miracle as the guy seemed powerful. But after roughly a year strange things started to happen. Three of my five colleagues either got transferred to other regions or with lateral postings in the HQ (headquarters). From a field job with a dreaded boss they were happily in new positions away from the heat and dust. Meanwhile all I could do was to resign in frustration. Then I called it politics, but what had happened was that my peers were astute in establishing and fostering healthy relationships with key stakeholders in the HQ. In regional meetings they ensured they spent time with their HQ colleagues, practiced good PR skills and built relationships that mattered. They did not display their discomfort with their boss, instead they ensured he was the pathway to their new roles. So when the new roles became a reality the HQ stakeholders were keen on these guys and the boss did not come in the way. This is what I call ‘taking care of your interests’ by not fighting a losing battle and then blaming others. Call it lobbying, back door management skills or knowing how to get the best out of the situation. Taking care of our interests many a times means harming others knowingly or unknowingly.
So when you take care of your interests, it may so happen that somebody else’s interests are compromised and for the people who get affected it’s office politics Not for you!
Does it mean all of us have to be continuously lobbying, bitching about others and carefully manipulating situations to suit our interests? I don’t have an honest answer to it. But I would say this, be participative I mean not in manipulating, but in ensuring that you have enough well-wishers in the company, people whom we can call promoters who work for you when you are not around. I am sure by now you would have realised that you are not omnipresent and not universally liked by everybody in your organisation. If you have realised that then spend some time showing the better side of you (even if it is superficial) to as many people as possible. If there are people from headquarters, regional offices, or other functions visiting your office make time for them, have coffee, buy them a drink, invest in them and show them that you are a good person whom they would remember. You never know who they would be having their next lunch with.
Time to scale up by taking care of your interests!