It's always a political season

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on June 8, 2003.

So, you don't bother playing office politics? Figure you can just hunker down, do your job and everything will work out fine?

Well, there's good news and bad news. The good part: According to consultant and author Karen Ginsburg Wood, that attitude might mean you're smart.

The bad news: Smart or not, you're probably going to sabotage your career thinking that way.

"Really, really smart people do this more often than not," Wood said. "We believe we'll be successful simply on the caliber of our work and we don't bother building relationships.

"I call it the revenge of the C students, who focus on building relationships," she said. "Their work sucks, but they're very successful."

"Building relationships" -- that's the new way of referring to office politics. All of the kissing up while golfing with the boss, all of the casual conversations by the copier with people far higher up the food chain, all of the little things workers do to get their views adopted -- they're just the way that people interact as they form relationships in the workplace.

And, organizational experts argue, they are good things.

Office politics get a bad rap "because many people don't really understand them," said Ronald Brown, a management consulting psychologist with Banks Brown in San Francisco. "They view politics as backroom deals in smoke-filled rooms."

Remember your Civics 101 definition of politics? Probably something about "a competition between competing interest groups or individuals for power and leadership"? (We got that one from the Oxford English Dictionary).

Office politics, Brown said, is the same thing as politics in the federal government, in Tallahassee or during the annual family Thanksgiving dinner. "Interest groups form around various values and ideas. At times these groups will compete and clash," Brown said. "Politics is the process in which that conflict is engaged."

Of course, there is still a dirty side to office politics. Backstabbing, glory-hogging and outright deceit can usually be found somewhere in most offices. The key to a fruitful career as an office politician, argues Joel DeLuca, a consultant and author of the book Political Savvy, is to maintain a good reputation.

"One of the underlying ideas behind Political Savvy is that it's about moving from a self interest to an enlightened self interest perspective," DeLuca said. "You want to build your reputation in the organization as a fair and decent player. Self interest is much more short term: You hit me, and I'll hit you back."

The thing that gives office politics a bad name is workers thinking that only the slimiest will succeed. "There's a lot of really good, decent, frustrated people who are stuck," DeLuca said. "The only people they see doing the influence stuff are the Machiavellian types."

But Machs, as DeLuca called them, won't survive for long if workers with integrity enter the political arena as well. "It's hard for a Mach to challenge a politically savvy individual," DeLuca said. "For the most part, Machs are out for themselves, so their networks are often not that large. A politically savvy person with a good reputation lower down can outmaneuver a Machiavellian."

(Machiavelli, you'll remember, was the one who argued that rulers should have a reputation for being stingy, avoid being merciful and know how to be deceitful. We've all had bosses who've apparently had those qualifications in their job description.)

So if you're not going to avoid office politics, how do you survive?

Choose to take part

"If you choose not to take part," Brown said, "you run the risk of being the object of politics. Every day there are relationships, interests, politics at work all around you. You never know when you are engaging in a political issue when you're unaware."

Find something you care about

It's hard to look good when you're only out for your own self interest. Like politicians who try to get everything done "for the children," you have to find an issue that you really care about to focus on.

"Most of the issues people get political about are issues of high values," Brown said. "It depends on how strongly you feel about the issues. If it's important to you, you have to make a choice to take part. If the people who support your particular interest are people you can admire or support, you make a choice to take part."

You need a vision, Wood said, something that energizes you. When you find something like that, you don't have to force yourself to build relationships; you'll do it naturally.

Form relationships

"Most organizations try to build relationships with their clients," DeLuca said. "Political savvy individuals build relationships all around them."

Successfully playing office politics requires you to join a group -- sign up with a party, basically. (Although your officemates would probably not appreciate being referred to as Bull Moose.) If you're trying to get something done in the office, you need to be able to go to co-workers as well as people elsewhere in the organization on an informal basis. "Politically savvy individuals are as comfortable working in the informal organization as well as the formal hierarchy," DeLuca said.

You don't have to go overboard. "I'm not saying to take these people home with you and make them dinner every night," Wood said. "But figure out how to make that connection with them beyond work."

Maintain your integrity

Again, it's just like any other form of politics: People who can be trusted tend to do better, at least in the long run, than those who cut corners. "The higher your reputation, the more influence you have in the organization," DeLuca stressed. "People want to work for those that are seen as ethical players, because that's where their careers lie."

Work for the good of the organization

If you're going to have integrity and form strong relationships, you have to use your political relationships for the good of the company, not for your own benefit. "The more you're seen as operating ethically, the more your word is your bond, the more people can count on you," DeLuca said. "The idea is not to be about your career. Be about something the organization cares about."

Make others look good

Especially your boss. "That's your No. 1 job," said Wood, an IBM consultant and author of Don't Sabotage Your Success! Make Office Politics Work. "The way that you get valued is to really be committed to being part of a team, to making your boss successful and to making the team successful."

It goes back to DeLuca's idea of enlightened self-interest, which says to focus more on long-term success. "Enlightened self interest knows that the better way to win the sweeter life is to be known as a fair player, to have a better reputation, to have my idea accepted instead of yours and get promoted," he said.

Believe that it works

"Someone who wants to be successful," Brown said, "should, at a minimum, understand what politics are all about."

The key to a successful career, Wood argued, is combining politics with good work. "It's BS from both sides," she said. "There's people doing the brown-nosing who know they're not qualified and people doing the work who are not getting valued.

"But figuring out how to make that connection with people, if you're really smart and do good work anyway, you'll rise so far past the brown-nosers, who can only do the kissing up."


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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