Why engaging with office politics is essential for your career
“I just want to do a good job and stay away from politics”, Kate told me. A 35-year old talented management consultant, my client was a rising star in her global organisation. She had worked hard and achieved many promotions in her career, but was finding the next step, to Director level, increasingly difficult to navigate. It felt the rules had changed somehow. Competition was fierce and she suspected she was being out-manoeuvered by a less competent but highly politically astute peer.
Sound familiar? Like it or not, navigating office politics is a critical skill for career advancement. Research has found that women with high levels of political skill are more likely to achieve career progression in male-dominated organisations . One of the most common things I hear from talented women is their disdain for engaging in office politics. Woman after woman tells me that they find it distasteful, sleazy, manipulative and not something they want to engage with. Yet I have seen careers scuppered by political naivety. At a certain level of seniority, doing a good job and getting results is simply no longer sufficient.
Does this mean you need to sacrifice your integrity and engage in underhand actions? No, it doesn’t. One of the most common misconceptions is the belief that political astuteness means being self-serving. The assumption that to get ahead you need to put your interests ahead of the organisation leads us to believe that it is an either/or conundrum. Yet it is possible to successfully navigate the politics while maintaining your integrity and keeping the interests of the organisation at the heart of what you do.
Being politically skilled means being able to read the organisation, your colleagues and the individuals most critical to your career progression. This political sophistication is key to helping you understand the motives and behaviours of others and to react accordingly.
Everyone we encounter in the workplace will have a different motivation and skill around navigating politics. I like this model – based on research by Baddeley and James – which identifies four different political personas.
Chances are you have come across each of these characters before.
'Sue the Snake’ – these people are well tuned in to how politics operate in the organisation and can ‘play the game’, but they will typically prioritise their own objectives and needs. However, they needn’t be written off. They can make helpful sponsors and mentors, but on the proviso that your agenda doesn’t clash with theirs (they will drop you the moment there is a conflict)
'No Idea Nelly’ – these people are inclined to look after their own interests first but are politically unaware or the power bases within the organisation, and as a result aren’t proficient at navigating the politics.
'Worthy Wendy’ – these people shy away from politics and as a result can be politically unaware. They can prioritise other people’s needs above their own and consequently can be taken advantage of.
'Sage Sarah’ - these people know how the system works but operate with integrity in how they access and use power. They make excellent sponsors and mentors.
Whether consciously or not, each of us has a political style. Where do you fit in this model? What is your political style? If you are reading this article it’s most likely because you are principled and want to operate with integrity. The self-serving side of politics isn’t for you. If you are already Sage Sarah then congratulations, you are already likely navigating the office politics effectively. But if you find yourself more a Worthy Wendy, the good news is that political astuteness can be developed.
As Oliver James describes, engaging in healthy politics involves :
Living in the present – this is critical to tuning in to the behaviours and motivations in the workplace
Self-awareness – understanding your own behaviours and triggers is key to helping you identify how this plays into the agendas and actions of others
Open, two-way communication – listening and being open to what others’ have to say, as well as communicating your point, has the best chance of a win-win outcome.
Fun – there is little downside to bringing a bit of joy to your, and your colleagues’, daily work life. Humour is good for our well-being, helps build relationships and can also help deal with the stresses of our game-playing colleagues.
Authenticity – being authentic is at the heart of effective leadership. Having a clear sense of who you are, what makes you tick, and purposefully behaving in accordance with these principles gives you clarity on where your boundaries are, and what you’re prepared to accept and helps to safeguard your emotional wellbeing.
While there is no single fool proof strategy for dealing with underhanded or manipulative behaviour in the workplace, political skill can be acquired.
 Baskerville Watkins, M, and Smith, A. N. (2014). Importance of Women’s Political Skill in Male-dominated Organizations. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 29(2), 206-222.
 James, O. (2013). Office Politics: How to thirve in a wolrd of lying, backstabbing and dirty tricks. Vermilion, London.