In today’s era, people think that not playing the political game, especially at your workplace is often seen as a good thing, even a badge of honor. Some managers see it as proof of their integrity. They are going to succeed because of job performance alone.
They couldn’t be more wrong. Research finds that a person’s political skills are a key to building a successful career—for the good of both themselves and their company. When talented executives combine knowledge of what their company needs with an ability to get things done, everyone benefits. Conversely, when a promising career falters because of poor political skills, companies have to spend time and money finding a replacement, and performance suffers in the meantime.
Being politically savvy is not about pushing others down or being untruthful to advance your own cause. Instead, it means building networks—relationships—with people inside and outside your company who can provide useful information and assistance. It means not picking fights over issues that aren’t critical. It means informing others in the company about your contributions and accomplishments, and asking for advice and help, particularly from those senior to you. And there’s nothing wrong with that. If you are going to make a difference, you need to have power.
Here are two simple issues in which you need to play some politics.
There are generally two times in every rising executive’s career that bring the biggest tests of their ability to manage organizational politics. The first comes after about five to seven years, when the person begins to take on roles that depend less on their individual performance and more on what they can accomplish through the people around them. The second is usually after 15 to 20 years, or when the person steps into a senior role with even more visibility. At this stage, there is much less room for mistakes, and technical skills are largely irrelevant for career success.
Pick Your Battles
Some brilliant people don’t realize there are trade-offs that must be made to work successfully with others in an organization. One now-derailed executive remembers being asked by his boss, “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be effective?” Savvy people live to fight another day by avoiding situations where they and their ideas are going to go down in flames.
But it is also to possible to avoid office politics if you think that is a better option.
Referring to ancient Greek Literature, in Homer’s tragically long poem “The Odyssey,” the heroic Odysseus and his ship-bound roommates must pass “the sirens,” bird-women who live on an island and hypnotize sailors with their voices, causing their ships to crash on the rocky shores.
Gossips, cynics and backstabbers are the sirens of the workplace. They’re seductive, particularly to newcomers, and they’re awfully hard to avoid. Odysseus made it past the sirens by having his crewmen tie him to the mast and fill their ears with wax. That approach doesn’t seem applicable to the workplace, so I consulted some career experts.
Raj Vishwanathan, a career success coach and a HR expert, said office cynics will invariably look to recruit a new person. “Office gossips/cynics are people who are often likable and every workplace is full of them,” he said. “They’re the people that didn’t get the promotion or the people who are always quick to complain about things. But if you get in with them, what you find is you start to become cynical as well, and that’s not a good tag to have associated with your name.” Try and be as away from such people as possible and you should do okay.
It is also common that new employees capitalize on their newness by “playing dumb” for the first few months. If someone puts a co-worker down, rather than playing along, the newbie can just say, “I don’t really know that person that well.” Playing dumb can buy a new employee time to figure out who the players are in a workplace and, hopefully, learn who to avoid and who to follow. “If you’re new, try to identify who is positive, who are the people who other people seem to respect and admire. Those are the people you want to be around. If you get to be known as someone who doesn’t say bad things about people, people come to trust you. It’s always the better path.”
In other words, channel your inner Odysseus and lead your people past the sirens. (But try not to fill anyone’s ears with wax. Human resources might not approve.)