Office Politics

August 18, 2014
Dan Callahan


Office Politics

The most important issue you will face at work is the one thing they never teach you: office politics.

It’s often the worst criticism you can level at a company, as in “there are a lot of office politics there.”

At best, office politics are the art and science of fitting in, of learning how to be a team player and of being recognized for good work. Office politics make work life human by teaching us to behave appropriately. We learn how to treat our fellow employees more humanely in a hectic mechanical society.

I was a victim of office politics in my first job out of college. Without any skills to understand where the power lie, I failed at a job I was perfectly well trained for. A few mistakes were magnified by my clumsiness at developing relationships with anyone who could have helped me. It is a lesson I have carried in every organization I have worked with.

On the surface, office politics sounds like a trivial, almost petty practice. The issue of who likes whom makes work feel like a replication of the worst aspects of high school. But, anyone who has studied organizations will tell you that office politics is in every group of workers. It is the means by which workers are measured and developed.

In fact, office politics represent the most human endeavor in the workplace. It focuses energy and time on getting along and developing skills. It’s as much about developing self-awareness as it is about learning how to be liked.

In fact, there’s a reason it’s not taught: it can’t be taught. It is an innate ability acquired only through experience. You can only learn elements of it. How it’s applied in your job varies greatly organization by organization.

Here’s some tips I have learned over the years:

  1. Always know how you are perceived by others in your organization. Generally, you want to be perceived as a go-to employee who gets things done, but you don’t want your ability to dispense knowledge to get in the way of your work.
  2. All projects are created equal, but some are more important than others. Always keep in mind the level of importance of what you are working on.
  3. Understand the power structure of the organization and know that decisions are made at every level.
  4. Be a problem solver, bring a possible solution along with the question or complaint.
  5. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, just don’t make the same mistakes over and over.
  6. Be accountable for your actions.
  7. Find ways to connect with your co-workers through shared experiences and interests.
  8. Care about your work, your co-workers and the company. Often little things are more important than grand gestures or deep conversations.
  9. Above all else, do your job well.