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Episode 003

Episode 3: How to successfully navigate office politics

by Gillian Fox

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Whether you respect it, hate it, practice it, or avoid it, office politics is something we all experience, and it’s in our interests to understand them and learn how to navigate them. I’m going to share today some home truths, valuable tips, and how to become politically savvy.

You are listening to Your Brilliant Career. I’m your host, Gillian Fox, executive coach, women’s career expert, and entrepreneur. The podcast that teaches you how to get the most out of your career. We talk tactics, tools, and stories that all help incredible women like you achieve the success you deserve. If you want to learn more about how to create the brilliant career you’ve always wanted, I encourage you to check out the RISE Program. It’s my four month career development program. Through a combination of individual executive coaching sessions and group workshops, you’ll discover how to overcome obstacles, create opportunities, and reach new heights in your career.

Hello and welcome to Your Brilliant Career. It’s great to be back with you. So today we are talking about how to navigate office politics. In a country that’s seen five prime ministers in less than 10 years, Australians understand better than some that only the most successful political players survive. But politicking is far from the sole preserve of pollies in Canberra, it’s the everyday reality of our professional lives. There is not an organisation on earth that does not have to deal with office politics, and whether you hate them or you love them, and most people hate them, office politics is something we all experience. They have a huge influence on what happens to you, your work, and your relationships. They determine who gets what, when, and how.

In delving into this topic, I couldn’t help but be curious as to why work politics are inevitable because they are prevalent everywhere, and I did some thinking around this and there’s several factors at play. As you’ve probably figured out by now, some people have more power than others, either through the hierarchy or pecking order or some other basis of influence. For many people, particularly many of the women I work with, advancing themselves is important, and this can create competition, it can create struggle, even misalignment with what’s happening around them.

You also have a lot of senior people who care passionately about their work and their desire to achieve results, and this can also encourage political behavior. A lot of politicking I’ve seen over the years is generated by people competing, and one of the things that I’ve observed that they compete furiously for is resources. Now this too can lead to a kind of tribal conflict, where teams compete to get what they want, even when it is against the greater good.

I remember this one time working in magazines when two sales managers wanted the same date for a launch. It was an evening event that was to be attended by key clients. Whoever got the preferred date was guaranteed a better attendee list, so the war was on. And I remember one of those sales managers claiming she couldn’t possibly hold the event another day because her top client, who was potentially booking the first eight pages in the launch edition, big bucks, could only attend on that date. Now of course, we all wondered if it was the truth, it probably wasn’t, and we’ll never know.

Aristotle said, “Man is by nature a political animal”. And let me tell you, some days in magazines it was just like The Devil Wears Prada. I started to believe everyone was a political animal, but now I get it. When you don’t get it, it’s complex and it’s disconcerting. So if you’re still baffled by office politics, let me try to shine a light on this for you today. The most important thing you need to know when it comes to office politics is that we have a choice. Now it may not feel like that when you are caught up in the middle of it, but we do, and I want you to try on three for size.

The first and the most common choice is to ignore office politics. That’s right. Be the person that refuses to engage in office politics and wear that title as a badge of honour. I meet plenty of women like this who work in large organisations with lots of executives, which usually means there is a lot of politics because executives want more influence and they know how to maneuver. The problem with avoiding office politics is that it could harm your career. I’ve seen people miss out on great opportunities because they didn’t influence or observe the dynamics of the political landscape. For many people, I’ve seen this so many times in my coaching, it left them disappointed, surprised, and remorseful. And by that I mean, they look back on their situation and they could see that if they didn’t ignore what was happening at that time, things could have worked out a lot more favourably for them. So ignoring office politics is one option, but certainly not the best one in my mind.

So here’s another, you can turn into someone you don’t like. That’s right. You too could become that person that people pretend to trust. I mean, you could learn to maneuver and wrangle in a way that is sneaky and manipulative. Some people do this, so could you. It’s a choice. Again, not one I would strongly recommend for the amazing women I work with and that I want to see succeed for a couple reasons. Firstly, it will damage your reputation, maybe not in the short term, but definitely in the long term. Secondly, it is really hard work pretending to be someone else. We’ve all seen those women in the workplace acting like they think they’re men because that’s what they think is warranted to succeed. But this is misguided on several counts. Firstly, there’s no diversity if everyone is acting the same, is there? Forget the gender split. If everyone’s acting like a bloke, where’s the diversity of thought? But secondly, when women bring their authentic selves to work, their communication is more powerful and they are great role models. Other women are encouraged to be more authentic too. What’s not to like about that?

So ignoring office politics isn’t the answer and turning into someone else isn’t a great option either. What is our third option? Our third option is to embrace office politics. Yes, I hear you gasp, but what if you became politically savvy? Developed an approach that empowered you, didn’t deplete you. Some interesting research by the Center for Creative Leadership shows that those who are politically savvy have better career prospects, better career trajectories, and are seen as more promotable. What a great incentive. Dealing with office politics takes a keen awareness of the business landscape, the players, and even the rules of engagement. To do this, you need to be observant. You need to be interested. You have to look up from your computer and look at the business landscape. Choosing to stay in your microcosm or your little bubble, like it might feel warm and cozy and safe, but it won’t give you any visibility nor does it allow you to observe the business scene. And that’s a problem if you want to be politically savvy. Because to be politically savvy means you have to interact in the business and build the right relationships.

Now I used to think the idea of doing this was insincere, maybe even a bit manipulative, but I changed my tune pretty quickly while I was working in publishing, and a restructure was presented at a leadership meeting without my input. I suddenly realised I was out of the loop, not just inside my department, but within the company. And the funny thing, I could see how this happened. I was under the pump leading up to this moment, trying to complete an important project. I thought the only way I could carve out time to get the job done was to lock myself in the office. Now you may have done this yourself before, just pushed on, pushed through, knuckled down, put the blinkers on to focus on what needs to be done, but all the while shutting out the important conversations that are still happening all around you and shaping the future of the business. I see this behavior in a lot of women, this idea if I just work hard it will deliver me the results that I need. But it’s not always the truth.

Of course, for me what happened while I was beavering away, I missed out on all the important conversations that were unfolding about the business and I couldn’t influence anyone or anything because I didn’t know about anything that was going on. People didn’t even notice my lack of participation in these important conversations because they too were flat out and just trying to survive. Unfortunately for me, it was a moment when my future in the company was at stake and I didn’t like it. I survived, but it was not fun, and I realised I had to rethink the relationships I wanted to invest in at work. Clearly, if I wanted to be politically savvy and survive, I had to cultivate good relationships with the key stakeholders and people at work. It wasn’t a luxury, it was an imperative. It was something that I needed to do.

That one experience was such a profound moment of realization for me. And I’ve seen other people have that same epiphany, you know when they realise they’ve missed out on a promotion or they were made redundant because they didn’t have the right relationships and they chose not to engage in office politics. It can be a challenge for many women to understand the political and business environment. To demystify this process in our RISE Program, this is our four month women’s career advancement programs, we deliver an activity called the Influencer Blueprint. Participants love it. It helps you to evaluate your business environment so you can design your approach to building relationships and influencing decision makers. So it’s a very clever activity. It helps people understand how to make their value more visible without turning into a shameless self promoter. So even if you’re an introvert, it allows you to demonstrate your contribution so people know who you are and what you do. I just love this activity because it helps women realise they can be politically savvy without turning into someone they don’t like. They can be smart, authentic, and develop the relationships they need at work.

Here are my three tips for you today that will help you to be more politically savvy. Number one, look up and observe the business landscape. I know the workplace can be complex and interconnected, but put your head up and see what’s happening in the broader business environment beyond your team and the team sitting beside you. Your value is contextual. Wherever you put your time and energy, it needs to be aligned with what is happening in the business. And if you don’t look up, you won’t know. Tip number two, look at the players. Who has power and influence over your career? Who makes the key decisions about your future? Who influences the big decisions in your division? Who are they aligned with? Who is in your circle of influence? Power and influence are constantly shifting in an organisation so you need to stay plugged into this.

Number three, display professionalism and poise. Now I know this sounds obvious, but sometimes you can get a difficult person who will challenge you in ways you never expected, and while regrettable, these things do happen and it’s crucial to continue conducting yourself well if it does. And yeah, I know you might want to bite back with a comment or overreact because of their behavior, but stay calm, be professional. If you need to respond, do it thoughtfully. And if you think you’re going to fly off the handle, get out of there and circle back later. Your reputation will always depend on the way you react to difficult situations. A smart political player will always come across as calm, thoughtful, and professional.

I’ve coached women who were promoted months after a very disruptive period in their company. They got offered the promotion because people remembered how they managed themselves during that difficult time, and they were impressed. They didn’t say anything at the time, but later these women were given wonderful and unexpected career opportunities, and this could happen for you too.

That’s a wrap today. As always, thank you for listening. I love talking to you and I look forward to chatting again in a few weeks.

Thanks so much for listening to today’s episode. If you are enjoying what you are learning on the podcast, sign up for our free training session on how to land your next promotion. This course is going to give you a close look at the three reasons why people don’t land their next promotion and what you can do differently to ensure you succeed. I think you’ll love it. Head over to YourBrilliantCareer/freetraining. I look forward to seeing you soon.

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