Career Coach: Getting past office politics

May 11

The subject of office politics can bring up tales of back stabbing, deceit, gamesmanship, sabotaging others, ruining people’s reputations and other tactics used by colleagues to get ahead in the workplace. It seems everyone has at least a story or two to share. Office politics seems to be a fact of life in many workplaces.

Office politics refers to differences or conflicts of interest between people at work. It often stems from fear or greed. Maybe we fear losing resources or we aren’t confident in our own ability to perform well, so we feel the need to discredit others.

The downside of office politics in the workplace is that it breeds mistrust, lower morale and team problems, resulting in lower satisfaction, productivity greater attrition. Who wants to work in a place where people are always fighting against each other or looking for the next opportunity to best someone?

How can you deal with office politics?

Remember to focus on the larger business objectives. It is easy to get caught up in “us vs. them” and to try to just win your side. But often there is a larger perspective that can be taken. This means we have to be willing to step back and manage ourselves.

Try to figure out why the person is engaging in the behaviors. Is it fear, and if so, why? What does it stem from? This can help you to potentially address these issues or befriend the person.

Bosses generally don’t like to hear about conflicts between employees. Especially if those employees are managers. Bosses expect us to resolve conflict on our own.

Focus on what you can control and whom you can influence. Get other informal leaders to help you.

Find a mentor f rom outside the organization who you can talk with. It helps to vent your frustrations with an outsider and then listen to their advice.

Take the high road by being nice and polite. I know this is really tough when faced with a manipulator or “player,” but it is important.

If people share and try to spread office gossip, try to ignore it and put a stop to it.

Be careful what information you divulge. Manipulators can gain personal information from you and then use this against you later.

Try to focus on the issues, not the person.

If you are caught in the middle of an office war, you have to decide if you will take sides or let them fight it out. This depends on what is at stake of course. But if there isn’t an ethical issue, then you may want to remain neutral so that both sides trust you.

Keep your cool. It is easy to flare up under a personal attack, yet it is really important to control your temper. If others see you lost it emotionally (by yelling, crying, etc.) then this influences their views of your emotional intelligence and control.

Hold your enemies close. Try to get to know them to form a friendship with them.

Don’t think about the situation as “fight or flight” only. Take a neutral ground if you can.

Think about taking the time to really understand the other side, so you can better learn what their underlying interests are in the situation. Why would you do this? If you really want something to change, you have to understand where the other side is coming from. You could describe the situation to them (without blaming them) and ask them for their point of view. It is important that they feel heard since this often lowers their defenses and builds rapport.

If you have been treated badly, eventually you may have to forgive and forget. This is really hard to do, but holding onto hatred or anger is really counterproductive. Anger and ideas of revenge can consume you to the point where you just can’t operate. Then your own quality of life is impacted. By letting it go, you can get on with your own life.

Remember that you don’t always have to have the last word. You don’t always have to be right. Sometimes it is better to just let it go.

Learn to be tactful.

Smile and do the best job you can. Your positive attitude will be seen by those around you.

Don’t let office politics ruin the rest of your life. Don’t let it consume you so that the rest of your life is affected by it. This can easily happen, but it is critical that you leave it at work.

Office politics may be a fact of life, but it doesn’t have to define who we are at work. While taking the high road may be tough to do, you will eventually win. After all, doesn’t good usually trump bad?

Joyce E. A. Russell is the vice dean and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu

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