Office politics - The art of organisational effectiveness

Rob Yeung looks at strategies for playing the political game.
Getting ahead at work can feel like a game of snakes and ladders.

Dedication and hard work can help you to climb the ladder one laborious rung at a time. Then there is always the risk that just a single bad piece of work or a run-in with a colleague could send you sliding all the way back down to the bottom again. At the same time, it can seem that others are playing an entirely different game that doesn't involve climbing ladders so much as vaulting them in one giant leap.

The truth is that promotions and opportunities tend to go to those who play the political game. And so the biggest mistake that most people make is to assume that they can get ahead at work simply by being good at their job.

Now you may think that politics is something that only manipulative, self-serving types engage in. But politicking merely describes the act of scrutinising relationships and learning how to influence others more effectively. Politicking is not intrinsically good or bad. It is merely a tool. Some people will choose to influence others to further their own devious ends, while others will influence for the good of themselves and the organisation. Becoming more aware of politics and relationships does not mean that you must automatically behave in an underhand fashion.

Take mental note

Start by opening your eyes and ears. Look around you, listen and observe.

I'm not saying that you should take written notes - although I know some canny office politicians who do - but do try to analyse and categorise the behaviour and intentions of the people around you.

A good start is to identify key players in the organisation. Who is it that people go to for advice? Who is it that always seems to be a font of news and gossip? You will be able to spot them because peers and even more senior people will tend to like, respect or envy them.

Gatekeepers are another notable group of people. They may not hold much influence in their own right, but they often act as a filter to key players.

They are often secretaries or other support staff whose job it is to block unimportant intrusions into the lives of key players.

Once you have identified the key players in your organisation, you can begin to think about how to influence them more effectively.

Private drivers and innermost needs

In order to influence someone, you need to understand what it is that really drives them. At work we are encouraged - or perhaps a better word would be 'conditioned' - to talk about wanting to strive for challenge and personal growth and wanting to further the goals of the organisation.

In reality, people rarely talk about their real drivers.

For example, before quitting my previous consulting firm to join Talentspace as a partner, I used to work in a firm run by two partners. John ran a change management team while the other partner ran a recruitment team.

The recruitment team was very profitable while John's team was far from it. But John refused to retrain his team to become recruitment consultants, even though that would have made him more money. Why? He never said it out loud, but it was because he didn't want to be subordinate to the other partner. Perhaps he needed to feel in control and to be seen by friends and people outside of the company as an equal partner. Recognition was more important than money. And when I realised that, it became child's play to manage John by pandering to his needs to have his ego massaged.

In fact recognition is one of the biggest drivers in the workplace. While many people say that they work for personal growth or to earn enough money to provide for their family's security, the truth is often that they actually crave recognition. They want status and seek to gain respect from colleagues and friends outside of work. Many of them have chips on their shoulders so the recognition that money and status brings often allows them to feel better about themselves.

Then there are others who need to feel socially included. Certain people can feel almost desperately sad when they feel they are not privy to office gossip and being included in social activities.

Still others want only an easy life. They want a job that pays them a decent wage and gives them as little stress as possible.

By observing the behaviour of key players and other types within your organisation, you can understand what drives them and therefore how to turn them into putty in your hands.

Final thoughts

People at work don't always do what is best for the organisation. Just as people know that they should exercise more and drink less, people at work often choose to ignore what they should do. Building stronger relationships and making people like you more will enable you to have more influence on them. So that when they have to decide whether to do the right thing or to help out a person they like, it will actually be the same decision.

Dr Rob Yeung is a director at business psychology and coaching consultancy Talentspace. He is the author of Successful Interviews Every Time (How To Books) and The Rules of EQ (Cyan Books)


Especially when you change job and find yourself in a new culture, be careful not to commit political crimes by breaking the unspoken political rules. Take time to observe and think through the following questions:

- How direct should you be with people?

Just as workers in Japan are less direct than in Denmark, employees in certain organisations prefer to be much less direct with requests and giving feedback too. While some senior managers honestly encourage employees to communicate very openly and honestly, managers in other organisations may only pay lip service to it. In those latter organisations, employees know that even when they are being asked for their opinions, being too honest can mark them out as troublemakers. Even if you have been brought in to turn around an underperforming team, be aware that your style of communication may need to vary depending on the political undercurrents in the organisation.

- How much control is exerted on staff?

Is your work highly controlled by having to check ideas and plans with your manager or fill in paperwork and submit budgets for the smallest of projects? Or are you given autonomy and independence to make judgments that you believe are in the best interests of the organisation? Overstepping the boundary will get you into trouble so make sure that you pay attention to how you should be behaving.

- How much is creativity and risk taking actually encouraged?

Some organisations encourage people to be creative and take risks in seeking new opportunities; others will say that they encourage it, but actually punish people who overstep boundaries. Remember that how managers describe their culture out loud may not actually be how it works.

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