Office Politics: Five tips for Playing in the Mud without Getting Dirty

Politics in the office is as unavoidable as traffic at rush hour or turkey on Thanksgiving. Few people enjoy office politics but, being human, they get pulled into sticky situations in spite of best intentions. Even when inane or petty (i.e. almost always), office politics inject tension, discomfort and drama into the workplace; often leaving employees feeling like participants in some bizarre reality TV show. At worst, office politics are a drain on morale and highly damaging to company culture.

Office Politics by David Crow, Flickr

Can Office Politics be Avoided?

Human nature will always result in differences of opinion, varying attitudes and potentially conflicting personalities. Personal agendas and different perspectives will often lead to misunderstandings. Barring the invention of a telepathic device, we must rely on imperfect communication skills. The question is: if office politics can’t be avoided, how do we thrive in this modern political jungle?

Tip 1: Stop and count to ten 

The modern office is fraught with difficulty. Human civilization is still relatively young. The rapid advance of society and industry has brought our primal fight/flight response into environments it wasn’t designed for; including the workplace. As tempted as you may be, you can’t beat up colleagues who threaten or annoy you. Neither can you run into a dark cave and wait for danger to pass. Not when danger is Mike from accounting rejecting an expense report, or Jane in marketing taking credit for your ideas.

What you can do, before reverting to a knee-jerk fight or flight response, is engage your less primitive reasoning brain and stop for a moment. Remember you have a choice. Give yourself time to respond in a way which won’t escalate the situation, or require hiding in a dark cave until Friday. Remember: “You don’t need to attend every argument you’re invited to.” ~ Unknown

Tip 2: Know your goal

There are two sides to even the most infuriating situation. Both parties in any conflict want to accomplish something. Understanding your goal will help you determine your best response. Understanding the other person’s goal will provide insight into the nature of the conflict and how to resolve it. Gaining a clear picture of everyone’s objective (including what’s best for the company), will help you decide whether it’s more important to be right or to make progress in a given situation. You may even find it makes sense to reserve your energy for a more important battle.

Tip 3: Grow your circle of influence

Infighting at work is seldom confined to those directly involved. Sooner or later, others get drawn in. Before you find yourself in a difficult situation and needing allies, think about who listens to you and respects you at work. Cultivate those relationships. Help those colleagues solve their sticky workplace problems; then, when you need some support, it’s more likely they’ll be there for you.

Tip 4: Surface the real problem

When it comes to office politics, it’s seldom about what you think it’s about. Rather than guessing at the cause of an uncomfortable situation or assuming the reason for someone’s malicious behavior, do some digging.

  • Start by asking others you work with if they’ve noticed the problem and whether they have any idea what’s behind it.
  • Avoid the temptation to disparage the person you’re having a challenge with.
  • Until you know the underlying reason for what appears to be workplace sabotage, reserve judgment.
  • Finally, ask to meet privately with the co-worker involved; explain your concerns with specific comments or actions and then ask her to share what has provoked them.

You may be surprised at what you learn. Perhaps you inadvertently slighted this person first—or maybe your political adversary had no idea you were being negatively impacted.

Tip 5: Listen first, speak second

We all like to get our point across. In the office, the loudest voice often wins. Our impulse, especially when a situation has triggered a “fight” response, is to get our view in early and often. The more agitated we get, the more we tend to impose our opinion on anyone who will listen or read an email. The best way to disarm an antagonist is to listen and strive to understand the alternate point of view. Having been heard, your nemesis will be much more inclined to listen.

A little friendly competition in the workplace can be energizing and motivating. Yet, when workplace competition goes underground and becomes office politics, it undermines everyone and damages the organization. Conflict will happen. Bringing it out into the open and resolving it without slinging mud or leaving people bruised creates a win for everyone involved.


Subscribe to the TribeHR Blog for more on what’s relevant to HR today.

Leave a Reply