Just the phrase “office politics” is enough to induce anxiety or a feeling of anger. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard people mutter, “I don’t want to play those games.”
Most people go out of their way to avoid being labeled as “political” because it carries a connotation of under-handed or manipulative. While there is a dark side to how some individuals move through the workplace striving to grow their influence and collect power, that’s just part of the story. The other and most important part of the story involves how priorities are established, how work gets done, how decisions are made, and ultimately, who advances.
It turns out, ignoring or avoiding the political environment in your workplace is naïve and career limiting. Instead, you need to rethink and reframe your relationship with office politics. Here are two reasons why this rethink is so essential.
There’s No Escaping Workplace Politics
Everywhere humans gather in pursuit of something, a political environment emerges. Someone or some people have power, decision-making authority, and the authority to direct what gets done and who does what. If you choose to opt-out of the process, you effectively relegate yourself to the role of pawn in a larger game of chess.
Your Career Success Depends Upon You Winning at It
In the research-backed book, Power: Why Some People Have It—And Others Don’t, Jeffrey Pfeffer offers, “Systematic empirical research confirms: being politically savvy and seeking power are related career success and even managerial performance.” The fact that the research suggests those with power live healthier, longer lives, is frosting on the cake.
Marc Effron, in his fabulous book, 8 Steps to High-Performance (also research-backed; check out my podcast with Marc here), suggests, “Science shows that influencing and connecting strategies are amazingly effective to get what you need from superiors and peers.”
Effectively, the political environment is ubiquitous, and your position in it determines your success and potentially your health. The next challenge is deciding how you want to engage in your organization’s political environment. Here are 7 ideas to help.
7 Ideas to Help You Grow Your Influence and Power on Your Terms
1. Adjust Your Attitude about Power, Influence, and Office Politics
As suggested above, resistance is futile, unless you are comfortable ceding all of your autonomy to the whims of others. Make up your mind that you must learn to engage in the workplace political environment in a manner that supports your values and allows you to maintain your integrity.
2. Start By Doing a Better Job Supporting Your Boss
Your boss is (or should be) your one natural ally. Your boss can choose you to be successful, reward you with plum projects, and support your career advancement. Or not. Much of this is up to you.
Regardless of your boss’s style, you have a vested interest in their success. Ideally, you are tuned-in to helping your boss forward her agenda, achieve her goals, and strengthen her position in the organization. Yet, an astonishing number of individuals I encounter have no idea what’s on their boss’s mind, what keeps them awake at night, and what their aspirations are in their careers.
Start your influence development process by working closer to home and tuning-in to your boss’s needs. This can happen via your questions and exchanges in one-on-ones or by listening and observing carefully. I’ve counseled many individuals to ask outright, “What are the projects or problems that are on your mind that we’re just not getting to?” Of course, you’ve got to do something with your fresh insights.
3. Focus Initially on Solving Small Things
You’re running a long race as you strive to grow your influence, and my counsel is to start small if this is new territory. Volunteer to your boss to help solve some of those vexing challenges he’s shared with you. Or, gain support from your boss to work with team members to fix something—a process or reporting problem—that creates inefficiency in daily operations. Ideally, begin cultivating experience bringing others to bear on solving these problems. Just remember to give them the visibility (and by default, yourself), when you start fixing things around the workplace.
4. Step into the Gray-Zone and Start Leading
As you gain the confidence of your peers, colleagues, and importantly your boss, look for opportunities to solve problems in the gray-zone—that area that exists somewhere between functional, divisional, or positional boundaries. This is “no-one’s” land, where ownership is ambiguous, yet the issues crossing this zone are visible and vexing to others.
From process or communication problems or any strategic change initiatives that demand cross-functional collaboration, your ability to bring others to the party to fix or create is a powerful strategy for cultivating influence. Again, you need to make this an opportunity for others to benefit from success.
5. Say “Yes” Often
While we’re regularly counseled on the importance of saying “No” as a means of keeping focus, there’s a powerful benefit that accrues from increasing your “Yes” count. It’s called “reciprocity,” and it is a fundamental norm of humans that if someone does something for a person, they feel compelled to repay you.
I’m an advocate for building up a big reciprocity bank account where I’ve helped others achieve their goals or solve their problems. There’s a long shelf-life to the reciprocity debt people feel to others, and you can draw upon this account at the right time. Yes, you’re building your future influence here.
6. Become a Boundary Spanner and Network Connector
The stronger your network is, the more influence and power you have at your disposal. Someone with a broad network with the right individuals in organizations has access to information and resources—the two primary currencies in any environment.
While the research is clear on this topic, too many individuals remain hunkered down behind silo or functional walls, doing their jobs, but not engaging. It takes effort—more effort for some than others—yet few activities pay more dividends than building relationships across your organization. Project team settings and other organizational functions offer excuses to start, refresh, or strengthen relationships.
Approach people with a genuine interest in their work and empathy for their challenges, and of course, find ways to help when appropriate.
7. Let the Right People Know You Can Do More
Many people express a desire to get ahead, do more, or take-on more significant, more organizationally-important roles. A good number of the people who feel this way, forget to let those in the positions of power and decision-making know they are ready, willing, and anxious to do more. Here are a few key points to ponder as you think about building your influence campaign:
- Someone must choose you to be successful
- You own your career
- No one is going to guess you are anxious to grow and expand unless you tell them.
The Bottom-Line for Now
I’m driven, as are most people, by a strong sense of values and of right and wrong. I checked, and there’s no rule in the rulebook on growing power and influence that suggests you have to be evil, stab people in their backs, or step on their hands as you climb the ladder.
It’s my choice to create “clean power” where the focus is on helping others, solving problems, and advancing the goals of my organization. Ultimately, I want to apply my power and influence to win in the market, serve my customers, and help my team members advance. However, without influence and power, those are just hopes.