"Office politics" is a term spoken with a negative tone, even though it really means "interpersonal dynamics in confined spaces with limited resources."
To increase your success navigating resource-limited confined-space dynamics:
First, know the game you are in.
Office politics depend on prevailing dynamics and change from group to group.
Even if groups share common members, people's behavior may change according to the environment. Know the game you are in to decide which constructive behaviors serve you best in which environment.
When gauging the game you are in, identify what limited resources are being competed, such as:
- Promotional opportunities
- Job "security" (i.e. making the "keep" list versus "lay off" list)
- Inclusion on special projects/meetings/assignments
- Number of "exceed expectations" assigned within a group, which in turn determines merit-based pay raise percentage.
Resources really boil down down to money. If you look at the list above, each item links back to "How much money do we have allocated at this time period for how many team members?"
Second, know the players, including yourself.
Know the positions the players hold, including their "plays." Don't filter or judge at this point. Start in observation mode and don't label player positions until you have gathered data over a few weeks and your data shows behavior consistencies.
Observe who gets invited to which meetings, where individuals sit at meetings, who starts meetings, who interrupts meetings, who speaks up, who responds, who remains silent, and who tries to stay invisible. Observe what kind of communication occurs between which individuals, how conflicts arise and are resolved, suppressed, or ignored. Note: If you do not have enough company knowledge or social capital, or if you are excluded from even knowing about these meetings, you would not be able to get this information. In this case, you must rely on others who have access to this knowledge and have enough rapport with them to hear about these events. In other words, be nice and share information, and people will more likely be nice to you and share information with you.
Find people who seem to "get" it in a particular environment (i.e., people who appear successful at the organization). Then observe what makes these people successful navigating the situation. Again, take notes: You are not looking to take up the personalities of these people, but you want to identify behaviors that make these individuals successful in this organization. Keep in mind that one person may be successful in one environment but not in another. If you find a person who navigates seamlessly across different environments, you have come upon a master. Pay attention to how this person's behaviors shift from situation to situation. Pay special attention to how this person manages up (relationship with immediate manager / supervisor as well as relationship with upper management).
This is also your time for self-scrutiny mode. Observe how you work right now, in different situations. How you interact with specific people, who or what presses your hot buttons, and how you respond when this occurs (do you become aggressive, assertive, passive aggressive, submissive?). This is not a simple "know your strengths and weaknesses" as much as knowing your default stress response (fight or flight) mode. Most of us work well with most others when times are great. When times are bad or uncertain and survival instincts take over, some of us work less well with others, and a few of us become terrible team members.
Third, know what "win" means for you.
Only after you complete the above tasks can you make a personal and informed decision about what "winning" means. Winning does not mean you have to adopt the behaviors that are rewarded in the organization if you find those behaviors reprehensible.
For example, if you find the person who appears most successful in your organization is one who abuses power or influence and regularly sabotages others, your "win" may be as simple (I didn't say easy) as "do my job and stay under the radar until I can transfer out of this department or find another job." In this case, you'd look at ways to stay out of power plays and stay invisible to individuals targeting potential threat.
However, if you are in an organization where there are people who are well liked and recognized not only within the department but across different divisions, and these people are excellent at their jobs as well as having the respect of their managers, these are people you'd want to emulate. Influence and recognition are not cultivated at random. These individuals likely know which battles to pick and win/lose, how to communicate with whom and by how much, and they have paid as much attention to growing their social capital as growing their subject matter expertise.
Winning at office politics should not mean you become a conniving, unlikable individual. Winning at office politics is striving for the most positive ideals of interpersonal dynamics in confined spaces with limited resources, through which you do well and do good with others who aim for the same.
While there are organizations that are truly dysfunctional, most organizations overall elevate people who are great at what they do, great to work with, and great to work for.
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