Your performance evaluation is partly subjective. It's not politics; it's life.
A "win" in my book is ensuring that the subjective aspects of your contributions are understood and appreciated without undermining your colleagues out of self-interest. I'll proceed from that standpoint.
I find that when most people fret about "office politics" their angst often stems from a misunderstanding of how their performance is measured, and they are uncomfortable with subjective measures. Many people harbor the misconception that their performance can be measured in purely objective terms, and thus that their performance can be compared to someone else's in objective terms as well. But human judgment has to be involved, because no two people do exactly the same job in the professional world. You and a colleague may have the same job on paper but get different opportunities because you worked on different projects. Moreover, some of the elements that have the greatest influence over the perception of your work quality, like communicative skills, are unavoidably subjective.
If the introduction of subjectivity into what previously felt like a simple success formula makes you uncomfortable, remember that "subjective" does not mean unfair or biased. The real question I believe you should be asking is not how to win at office politics, but how to do the subjective parts of your job really well so that you're not surprised by who gets ahead and why. Here arethat should point you in the right direction:
- It is impossible to distill the entirety of your job's demands into a checklist.
- Whatever else happens, your professional advancement occurs when those more senior to decide it will.
- Despite all of objective criteria listed, some unknown percentage of your evaluation is subjective.
- The exact performance review criteria matter less than whether you make the organization better, and give people reason to trust you with more responsibility.
That making the organization better and earning managements' trust matter the most is important to understand for two reasons. First, this fact implies that your listed responsibilities are in fact the minimum criteria of your job, not a punch list for earning your next promotion. Your job is making the company more successful--not because your contract says so, but because that's what great employees do, period.
Earning people's trust creates value for them AND you.
What most people don't see about the value of trust but savvier folks understand intuitively is that it's valuable on both sides of a relationship. Senior managers need employees they can trust further down the chain so that they can focus on Big Things without sweating the smaller things. A lack of people they trust is a major problem because worrying about too many things at once keeps them from doing their jobs. When you become a go-to person--one who can be counted on to get the job done without too much oversight - you're not only helping yourself, you're solving a problem for someone. This is why trusted problem solvers rise faster within an organization than their peers who haven't earned that trust.
To people who don't understand this, the unexplained success of others often looks like "politics". Their thinking is, if it can't be reduced to the objective criteria that can be put in a spreadsheet, it must be politics.
If you run a search in the Amazon Bookstore on "office politics," you will find titles like, Office Politics: How to Thrive in a World of Lying, Backstabbing and Dirty Tricks, or Career Warfare: 10 Rules for Building a Successful Personal Brand on the Business Battlefield, and It's All Politics: Winning in a World Where Hard Work and Talent Aren't Enough, among dozens of others. Whatever their merit for their intended audiences, I not only find such books to be written at the wrong altitude for those who are just starting their careers, but I find the emphasis on politics as a career determinant to be overstated. For example, it is far more important for your career that you learn how to create opportunities for yourself or drive adoption of your ideas than it is to learn how to develop countermeasures for people you believe are trying to thwart you. Underinvesting in these subtler points of personal effectiveness puts your career at far greater risk of stalling than not paying enough attention to politics ever would.
So how do you build trust and master these subjective elements? I've written about many of them at length here:
- Understanding how important decisions get made
- Bringing big ideas to the table (see: )
- Finding leveraged ways to keep developing your skills
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