Your Office Coach ® Marie G. McIntyre, Ph.D.
Advice on difficult bosses, cranky coworkers, office politics, and career issues.
Politics Is Not a Dirty Word
Playing politics is like having sex. Almost everybody does it, but nobody is comfortable discussing exactly what they do. We will talk for hours, however, about what other people might be doing. Typically, we use the term “playing politics” only to describe our colleagues’ behavior – never our own. They are sucking up, scheming, and manipulating, but we are building relationships, developing strategies, and opening communication channels.
Many people feel that playing the political game involves devious plotting or blatant self-promotion. But in reality, “politics” is what naturally happens whenever people with different goals, interests, and personalities try to work together. So we are all continuously engaged in political transactions throughout the normal course of every workday. The process itself is neither good nor bad, but simply a fact of life – and the morality of the outcome is determined entirely by the motives and goals of the players. Both Hitler and Mother Theresa might be considered “politically” adept, but their results are judged rather differently.
How Do You Win At Politics?
The political side of work quickly becomes apparent as soon as we take our first job. To succeed, we not only have to do outstanding work, but we also have to deal with quirky bosses and annoying co-workers. Colleagues get defensive when we point out their mistakes, unscrupulous rivals try to stab us in the back, and managers make decisions that seem totally unfair – or completely idiotic. Learning to deal with these realities, and succeed in spite of them, constitutes an on-the-job political education. Every office is a playing field for the game of politics. And when you take a job, you’re automatically a player.
Kelly learned this lesson the hard way. After graduating from college with a marketing degree, she accepted an administrative assistant position in the Marketing Department of a large corporation, viewing it as a temporary step towards her professional career. But as the months passed, Kelly became increasingly discouraged. Every time she applied for a promotion, she was rejected, with no clear explanation of the reason. Finally, feeling trapped and desperate, she went to her boss and asked for some honest feedback. Much to her surprise, Kelly learned that people viewed her as egotistical and arrogant – the unanticipated result of her desire to get into a marketing position. Striving to be noticed by management, Kelly had tried to demonstrate her superior knowledge and skills at every opportunity, but this tactic had backfired. Her condescending manner completely alienated the other assistants, who quickly spread the word that she was difficult to work with, thereby killing her chances of being promoted. Kelly was stunned by the feedback – but her political education had begun. In her eagerness to succeed, Kelly made a common mistake: she failed to realize that managing the political environment is just as important as managing tasks and responsibilities.
Winning this game means acquiring the political power necessary to accomplish the goals that matter to you. We sometimes equate success only with rapid advancement, but not everyone is interested in promotions. Autonomy, security, responsibility, skill development, challenge, and interesting work are a few of the other rewards that people often hope to find through their jobs. When I recently surveyed 220 people from business and government organizations about their views on office politics, these were some of the responses to the question “When someone is good at politics, what are they able to do?”.
The common theme running through these answers is that politics is about getting what you want, whatever that may be. And to get what you want, you must be able to influence others. Kelly provides a clear example of political failure: she has inadvertently created adversarial relationships that present a serious obstacle to reaching her career goals. To respond to this catastrophe, she needs a political strategy that will reverse the negative opinions held by her co-workers and her boss. If she succeeds in shifting these perceptions, her odds of moving into a marketing slot will greatly increase.
Although a well-crafted political game plan can represent the difference between success and failure, candid discussion of strategic maneuvers sometimes makes people uneasy. Purposeful strategizing is often mistakenly viewed as scheming or plotting. In Kelly’s situation, a wise mentor might suggest that she needs to cease her obvious self-promotion and seek out opportunities to assist her colleagues. Nothing manipulative about this advice – it’s just practical. And beneficial for the business as well. Increased cooperation among the assistants should not only improve Kelly’s image, but also help the department run more smoothly. Although she needs to be less blatant about it, Kelly should continue to look for chances to get to know managers in the Marketing Department and demonstrate her potential. You always have a better shot at accomplishing your goals if the people in power support you. And they can hardly support you if they don’t know who you are. Making yourself known in appropriate ways is simply smart – but talking about specific tactics can make people cringe a bit.
Just as some have a natural aptitude for math, music, or golf, others seem to possess innate political talent. These instinctive abilities give them the same competitive advantage at work that natural athletes have in sports. But while you can improve your golf score by signing up for lessons, it’s pretty tough to find tutoring in office politics. Because the frank discussion of strategy is frowned upon, people with political dilemmas often have to suffer in silence. By openly discussing the “secrets” of office politics and describing the attitudes, behaviors, and approaches that contribute to success, this book is designed to help you understand and manage the political process in your organization. So here’s lesson number one: to win at office politics, you must first clearly define your goals.
What Do You Want?
If you took a poll and asked people why they work, what do you think they would say? Money is usually the first reason that comes to mind. But in addition to financial security, work provides many other benefits: we can learn new skills, interact with congenial people, take pride in accomplishments, and identify with a meaningful purpose. Although we complain about our jobs and dream about vacations, most of us get a lot more from work than just a paycheck.
Let’s consider two people who represent opposite extremes in their political goals. First we have Sergio, a young Sales Manager who knows exactly how he wants his entire career to unfold. Sergio likes the company he works for and hopes to stay there. He has a plan: first, transfer to a position with a larger sales territory, then apply for a Regional Director job, with the ultimate goal of becoming Vice President for North American Sales – and CEO wouldn’t be out of the question. Sergio is clearly an ambitious, goal-driven guy.
At the other extreme, we find Joan, an executive assistant in the legal department of a large corporation. “I really don’t have any work goals,” she said to me. “I just come in every day and do my job.” This sounded like someone working mostly for a paycheck, so I inquired about her life outside of work. Her whole face lit up as she enthusiastically described her community and church activities. Joan, like many people, is motivated by something other than her job and works primarily to finance the rest of her life. But she actually does have goals related to work: she wants to remain employed and enjoy her time at the office as much as possible. People whose eyes glaze over when asked about their goals often find it much easier to answer this question: “How would you like things to be different?” And Joan had a ready answer for that one. She was getting a little bored and wished that her work could be more interesting. So, politically speaking, Sergio needs to position himself for the next promotion, while Joan needs to either acquire some new responsibilities or find a more rewarding position.
In my job, I frequently encounter people who are having difficulty with some aspect of their work. They may be uncertain of their next career move, angry at a demanding boss, excluded from an important project, annoyed with uncooperative colleagues, afraid of failing at a tough new assignment, unsure of how to sell an idea to management, burned out from ongoing job stress, or experiencing a host of other problems. After we discuss their dilemma, my first question is always the same: “What are your personal goals in this situation?” If they aren’t sure of the answer, then that’s where we start, because all subsequent decisions and actions need to be driven by their own individual desires.
An old saying provides this advice, “If you’re not sure where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.” When thinking about your goals, here are some questions to consider:
§ Do you want to stay with your current organization or find a different place to work?
§ Do you want to remain in the same field or consider a different occupation?
§ Would you like a more comfortable relationship with your boss?
§ Do you want to be given more challenging and interesting assignments?
§ Are you interested in getting promoted or expanding your responsibilities?
§ Do you want more recognition for your contributions or accomplishments?
§ Would you like a better working relationship with certain people or departments?
§ Do you simply want to keep your current job in order to finance the rest of your life?
Sharpening your political ability can increase the odds of accomplishing whatever objectives are important to you, but first you must clearly differentiate between goals and wishes.
The Difference between a Goal and a Wish
When we are having problems at work, we often think in terms of wishes, not goals.
“I wish that I could make more money.”
“I wish I had gotten that promotion instead of Susan.”
“I wish that my boss wasn’t such a moron.”
“I wish my employees would pay attention to deadlines.”
“I wish a headhunter would call and offer me a job.”
Wishing is a passive activity that can easily degenerate into whining and complaining. Goals, on the other hand, help to define the actions we need to take. The more time we spend wishing, the less time we spend actually accomplishing anything. Fortunately, however, our wishes usually contain clues to our political objectives.
The CEO of a health care company hired me to provide some coaching for Jeff, an executive who was driving him crazy. After a reorganization, Jeff no longer reported to the CEO, but to a newly hired Senior Vice President. However, Jeff was acting as though this change had never happened, continuing to go to the CEO for information and seldom responding to requests from his new boss. He frequently made snide, sarcastic remarks about the situation within earshot of the CEO. “Do something about him!” the CEO ordered. “He’s got a lot of future potential here, but not if he keeps acting like this!” When Jeff and I got together, he embarked on a long, rambling tirade about unqualified executives, stupid decisions, and general unfairness. Then I asked the key question: “What do you want in this situation, Jeff? What are your goals? Are you planning on a career with this company or are you ready to leave?”
Without the answer to this question, Jeff’s future course of action is unclear. If he is so disillusioned that he wants to seek greener pastures elsewhere, then he needs to begin making outside contacts. On the other hand, if he plans to remain with this company, he needs to be perceived as a helpful, contributing member of the management team. When we first met, however, he was expending his energy in the least productive way possible: obsessing about the past, complaining about his new boss, and wishing that things would magically return to their previous state.
Jeff responded that he did indeed want to stay with his company, but wished that he could return to his previous level. If that is his goal, then he has additional questions to consider: “What can you do to move in that direction? And is your current behavior helping?” Clearly it wasn’t, but Jeff hadn’t previously thought about it that way – in fact, he really wasn’t thinking at all. He was angry and hurt and acting out his feelings. Once he decided to stop focusing on his resentment, he could consider the future and define his goals. Having chosen to stay with his company, Jeff now had a clear guideline to follow when interacting with others (including his new boss): what would a cooperative and committed member of the management team do in this situation? By using this guideline to make conscious decisions about his behavior, he was able to repair his management relationships and get back on a positive career track.
Wishes put the focus on what we want “them” to do. Goals highlight what we can do ourselves. Wishes automatically take us out of the power position by implying that we are at the mercy of others, while goals give us power by describing results that we intend to accomplish. When converted to goals, the earlier wish list would look like this:
“I am going to develop the skills I need for a higher-paying job.”
“I will ask my manager about how to prepare myself for the next available promotion.”
“I am going to start communicating in a more positive way with my boss.”
“I am going to discuss the importance of deadlines with my employees and see that they meet them.”
“I plan to update my resume and start checking out jobs in my field.”
Goals imply action. Wishes imply sitting around and waiting for something to happen. Changing from wishful thinking to goal-directed planning doesn’t guarantee that you will get what you want, but it certainly increases your odds.