Thursday, October 11, 2007

Office Politics

Office politics is just like the lottery. Dreaming about winning doesn't get you anywhere - there's no payoff if you don't buy a ticket. You have to play if you want to win. But unlike the lottery, there are consequences if you decide not to play. Game PlanAt its core, nearly all IT work is binary - ones or zeros, on or off. To solve problems, we drill down until we get to this point of logical decision. Unfortunately, office politics can't be reduced to this level of simplicity. Techies tend to be (gross generalization alert) better at complex logic than complex human behavior. Debug messy code? Sure, I can do that. Decode messy office dynamics? Uh, I'll be heads down in my cube. Gotta go. Office politics is a complex stew of power, ambition, control and ego. Winning, if there is such a thing, requires continuous attention to who's important/not important at any given moment and strategically aligning with the right faction(s). Mistakes can be fatal to a career. It's easy to see how many people decide it's smarter to sit on the sidelines. Swim with these sharks? No thanks, it's much safer not to get involved. Or so you'd think ... but you'd be wrong. Opt out, and the best you can hope for is to be completely ignored. This might be good for your psyche, but it's tough on your career. Promotions or good assignments won't be coming your way, but a layoff might, if one's in the offing. All too often, quiet = expendable. If you choose not to play, be sure you don't criticize those who do, or the game itself. You'll be labeled a loose cannon or a troublemaker. You'll also be a target for skilled political players who may decide to use you to further their own agendas. It's easy to identify the person who doesn't want to join in as the malcontent who's responsible for badmouthing unpopular decisions. Well, says you, I'm not being negative, I'm just saying that things should be based on merit - the quality of your work, not who you kiss up to. I agree - in principal. It sounds great, but I've never seen a company where there wasn't some element of politics at work. This is UnfairRight. What's your point? The culture of each workplace evolves over time, largely in reaction to the example that's set at the top. Unless you're the new CEO, your ability to unilaterally create change is very, very limited. You can continue to resist, but it's going to be a lot less painful if you adapt. You'll be most effective if you can deal with things the way they are, not the way you think they should be. No one can take your principles away from you, but they can take away your position. It's really your choice, and I hope it never comes to that. The best strategy is to modify your view of office politics. Rather than seeing it as a hotbed of useless gossip, intrigue, brown-nosing, or backstabbing, try to recast it in a positive light. Think of the political game as a means for you to spread your own gospel through positive example. One of the few absolute rules of office culture is that it's not enough just to do a great job. You've also got to communicate your abilities and successes to the right people, and you've got to do it via the "right way", which is going to be dictated by the company's cultural norms. Observation is the key. Open Your Eyes and Ears; Keep Your Mouth ShutA key mistake in office politics is accepting information without independent verification. There are a couple of ways this happens. One is that people look at an org chart and take it at face value. In the work environment, there's both a formal and informal hierarchy. There are people on the chart with position and authority who are incapable of exercising it, and conversely, there are people that may not even appear on the chart who manage to run everything. Your job is to figure out who's who, and cultivate good relationships accordingly. That won't happen if you step away from your desk only to use the bathroom. The second mistake people often make is to align themselves with one faction too early, or too closely. When you start a new job, it's tempting to latch onto a person or small group fast. Understandable - it gets you over being green and helps acclimate you to the new environment. The danger is that you may inadvertently align with the wrong group, and you won't know until it's too late. Better to be friendly towards everybody and get the full range of opinions. If you don't favor one faction over another, you'll be able to array all of the different points of view and validate their legitimacy against your own observations. Spend less time talking, and more time listening. This is a wonderful technique that has several distinct benefits. First, you minimize the opportunity to say anything stupid or ill-advised that can come back and haunt you later. Second, people who like to talk think highly of people who listen. They project competence onto you because you let them do what they need to do. They'll speak well of you later, even though your view of these conversations is that they're a good opportunity to plan what you're going to do for lunch. The third benefit of doing more listening than talking is that your silence, especially your continued silence, is liable to make other people a bit uneasy. People who are edgy tend to chatter more than they should. (Think how job candidates might babble to fill up a silence during an interview.) Sometimes, that chatter includes information that wasn't intended to be revealed. All the better for you. Rules of the GameThere's one rule in office politics that can trump all the other rules: never make your boss look bad. Most bad bosses are capable of accomplishing this all on their own. They don't need your help and you don't need to get dragged down with them. Create a situation where your boss is seen in a negative light and you'll be the one who pays the price in the short run. The other rules of office politics are less about the politics and more about you and your behavior. This list isn't all-inclusive, and strict adherence doesn't guarantee success. But, it's better than nothing: Figure out what you want and plot your strategy accordingly. Be a part of multiple networks, not just one. Communicate with your networks often, and in the ways that work best. Judge behavior in the organizational context, not against some idealized standard. Watch other people at work and identify successful behaviors that you can model Don't pass along questionable judgments or spread rumors Look for win/win ways to resolve conflicts, but never leave them unresolved.


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