Career Advancement
Women Talking in Office

Office Politics Is Critical to Get Ahead

Have you ever been excluded from a meeting, had your work contributions downplayed, or been ignored in the decision-making process? If so, you’ve experienced office politics.  

While office politics can be frustrating, and some people refuse to play what they see as a game, an article in Harvard Business Review claims that “office politics are a necessary part of organizational life” and “studies affirm that being able to successfully use political skills is critical to career advancement.”  

Becoming skilled at office politics is not only essential for career progress. In 7 Rules of Power, Dr. Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, claims it is also “positively related to job satisfaction, work productivity…and personal reputation.” 

It’s to your advantage to learn what office politics is and how to use it to benefit yourself and your work community.  

Understanding Office Politics

Rosalind Chow, PhD., a professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business whose teaching explores how power and status dynamics influence group engagement, defines office politics as “anything people do to influence others and jockey for position that goes outside the usual process for how things get done.”  

Office politics often has a negative connotation, particularly among women. According to Harvard Business Review, “many women have an adverse, almost allergic reaction, to office politics. Numerous studies confirm this; women tend to see it as something dirty or dishonest, and as a stressful aspect of work that reduces their job satisfaction.”  

Dr. Chow suggests that office politics hinges less on gender and more on power. People without power are more sensitive to rules, making it more likely that they notice when they are excluded from meetings or not being heard. Moreover, because they lack power, they are more likely to be excluded from meetings or not heard. 

People with more power, on the other hand, are accustomed to sharing their opinions and being listened to and, therefore, they don’t perceive office politics is at play the way those with less gravitas do. As Dr. Chow explains, “Outcomes [of political behavior] are good for some, and bad for others. For people for whom it’s good, they won’t say it’s bad. Others will say it’s office politics.”  

But Dr. Chow says that office politics is not inherently bad — it depends on the motive. For example, an oft-cited example of office politics is when leaders hold a “meeting before the meeting.”  

The purpose of such a pre-meeting may be to get a group to come to a consensus before a decision-making meeting. When that happens, Dr. Chow says, the group is “predisposed to a preference and will express support, which puts social pressure on people who have different views or feel so uncomfortable that they don’t express their opinions.” This is normally considered a negative version of having meetings before the meeting. 

However, if the objective of a pre-meeting is to gauge opinions on a topic before the decision-making meeting so that a leader can advocate for the opinions of colleagues in more junior roles who may feel less confident speaking up, there’s positive intention behind the behavior. 

Harvard Business Review reinforces that perceptions of office politics depend on where someone sits within an organization: “You’re more negatively affected by office politics if you don’t know what you stand for or don’t have the courage to advocate for it.” Dr. Chow adds, “You’re more negatively affected by office politics if you don’t have power.” 

Thriving Amid Office Politics 

What can you do if you are missing opportunities because you don’t know how to navigate office politics? 

Choose Status Over Power

Dr. Chow believes that truly influential people do not overtly exert their influence. Your goal should not be to gain power, but instead to become a person who garners trust and admiration. “Whatever you can do to increase other’s support and trust and admiration in you, you are going to have status and be successful,” she says. “If you use status instead of power to get what you want, you will not be seen as engaging in office politics. You will be seen as a sage who is dispensing your wisdom to others.” 

Nurture Your Relationships

Business is largely about people, and no one gets ahead alone. Strong workplace relationships that create trust and an exchange of ideas can help diminish office politics. “In the interdependent world of work, where you need others to help you accomplish your goals, continuously nurturing relationships and learning from others is key to your success,” according to Harvard Business Review 

It’s critical to avoid the kind of behavior that destroys workplace trust and connections. For example, Dr. Chow strongly discourages engaging in gossip. “If you are going to gossip, only share good things. Save the bad stuff for instances when, if you don’t tell someone, something negative is going to happen to that person,” she suggests. 

Advocate for Others

While some view advocacy as a role for leaders only, “sponsorship doesn’t have to come from someone in a position of power,” Dr. Chow explains. A sponsor can be any colleague who is willing to stand up for you, give you credit when it’s due, or even “raise a stink on your behalf,” she says.  

To create an advocacy culture among peers, Dr. Chow encourages women to establish coalitions with other women. Having a group’s support can be especially helpful when you don’t feel comfortable advocating for yourself or worry it may be off-putting to others. “If you do it yourself, as a lower power person, people may think of you as asking for things that you’re not entitled to,” she says. With self-advocacy, you can get a “disagreeable reputation” so it “goes over better when it is from someone else.” 

If engaging in office politics makes you feel uncomfortable, remember that it’s not an either/or proposition. If you stay true to your values, support your colleagues, and have the courage to share your opinions, you can still benefit from political behavior and maintain your integrity.  

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