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How to Navigate the Quagmire of Office Politics

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Have you heard the saying, “If you have more than one employee, you have office politics”? Workplace politics are simply a fact of life. While today’s robust job market may tempt some frustrated employees to search for a more congenial work setting, chances are likely they’ll run into similar situations in their next job.

If you find that the political factions at the office are bearing down on you, your choices are to let them goad you into jockeying for allegiances — a quick fix that can come back to bite you, or to navigate them in a way that keeps relationships intact. 

Political posturing at the office takes many forms. Pick out your particular brand of partisanship from among the problematic office varieties, and try the proposed strategies to stay above the fray.

Faction #1 – Conflicting political platforms among managers. Both parties are vying for clout while working at cross-purposes to advance their own ideas. They each want to outdo the other to take credit for their big achievement. They expect you to do their bidding.

Strategy: Don’t align with one or the other, but maintain your impartiality. Walk the line by emphasizing overlapping interests, keeping communications open and transparent, and remaining focused on the company’s overall goals. Stay neutral and strive to be known for your fair-mindedness and ability to get things done.

Faction #2 – Gatekeeper protecting her turf. It’s important to decode rank and position in every office setting. Oftentimes, it has little to do with job title or seniority. Ascertaining who’s setting the agenda or has the boss’s ear is essential, even if you question the tactics involved. It can mean the difference between your success and failure within the organization. 

Strategy: You’ll need to appeal to the person’s best interests while focusing on how best to meet overall objectives. Don’t challenge the gatekeeper’s status; leave those positions to the power mongers. The maneuvering can backfire if higher ups learn that the gatekeeper squelched a potentially winning idea. 

Faction #3 – Coddled superstar. He’s never on time, but no one calls him on it. In meetings, he’s clever and talks a good game, but his follow through is continually lacking. He earned his status through one resounding win, and now takes his elevated position for granted as he coasts on his team’s coattails. Those on his team resent his lack of reliability. 

Strategy: Don’t be the one who points out the problems. Instead, be the one who proposes solutions when his participation falls short. Don’t demean a fellow employee’s work; leave that to a supervisor.

Faction #4 – Incorrigible good-old-boy network. They spend the first half hour of the workday sharing blow-by-blows of the previous night’s game in loud, expletive-laden commentary. Or, they rehash boisterous tales of a previous weekend’s bacchanalia. Their raucous conversations take place where everyone can’t help but hear and become distracted. 

Strategy: Keep focused on your own work, and don’t reprimand. If you need to grab your laptop and find a quiet room to work away from the racket, do so with equanimity. Their wasted time is undoubtedly noted by their supervisor or higher-ups.

Faction #5 – Catty cliques. They huddle together and talk about other staff members in whispers. They snicker at inside jokes. When others try to approach their group, they disband and walk away. But most disruptive of all, the callous clique undermines teamwork by playing favorites, as though everything’s a popularity contest.

Strategy: Don’t suck up by lowering yourself to their pettiness. Gossip has a way of sending office morale plummeting. Take the high road and never join in. It’s best to be diplomatic and act friendly toward everyone. You’ll come across as a team player and show that you have the capacity to look for strengths in those around you. 

What to do if there’s a campaign against you?

What course should you take when office politics lead to a smear campaign against you? Is a fight or flight response better in the face of an accusation? The best way to address any challenge to your character is to keep your cool. Work to resolve a co-worker issue by taking your critic out for a beer. Better bonding begins outside the office.

 If the issue dissolves into factions, be sure to talk to your boss about it privately. Refrain from derogatory comments about your rivals — speaking negatively about others does more harm than good. If you’ve proven yourself as an even-tempered team player that adds value to the company, your boss will know whom to believe.

Vicky Oliver is a leading career development expert and the multi-best-selling author of five books, including 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions (Sourcebooks 2005), named in the top 10 list of “Best Books for HR Interview Prep,” 301 Smart Answers to Tough Business Etiquette Questions (Skyhorse 2010), and Bad Bosses, Crazy Coworkers, and Other Office Idiots (Sourcebooks 2008). She’s a sought-after speaker and seminar presenter and a popular media source, having made over 700 appearances in broadcast, print, and online outlets. For more information, visit vickyoliver.com.

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