Master office politics without becoming a monster

Every month, Oliver Burkeman invites you to improve your work life


Master office politics without becoming a monster

The project

To many, ‘office politics’ is synonymous with backstabbing, rumour-mongering, and stealing credit for other people’s work. The bad news, if that’s how you feel, is that you can’t afford not to play the game. But the good news is that with a few simple rules, you can climb the ladder yet preserve your integrity.

The aim

Office politics is about two things: who gets praise and blame, and who exerts influence. But there’s a paradox: people who are best at office politics don’t seem like they’re good at it; they seem (and often are) ‘unpolitical’ and sincere. So don’t emulate the plotters. They damage their reputations, so the short-term gains rarely translate into long-term ones.

The theory

What backstabbers don’t understand is that power and praise aren’t a ‘zero-sum game’: just because someone else gets some, it doesn’t mean you lose some. Helping others acquire credit can help you, so learn to spot the places where self-interest and selflessness overlap.

If you’ve got a specific strength, offer it to those in positions of influence. You’ll be helping out, and making yourself indispensable. If a colleague does good work, praise it – it’ll boost your reputation, but also it’s the right thing to do.

Meanwhile, if you’re the target of nasty office politics, never add to the drama. Serious offences like bullying or harassment should be reported; minor ones, like gossip, can be ignored.

Focus on building alliances, not destroying enemies.

Try it out

  • Manage up, down and across: Some people make the error of thinking they need only butter up their bosses. But when it comes to office politics, everyone’s relevant. Ask yourself: ‘How can I make this person’s job easier?’
  • Watch out for ‘strategic incompetence’: That’s the label describing those colleagues who pretend they can’t do certain things – say, replace the ink in the printer – so they never get asked. You don’t need to tolerate that. (Though you might want to try it yourself at times…)
  • Pick your battles: Clarify your long-term aims in the office: a certain post or salary, or just to be happy and do good work. Then, ask yourself if any fight is really worth trying to win. Many aren’t. Choosing to step away can be good politics, too.

OLIVER BURKEMAN is the author of The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (Canongate, £8.99)

More inspiration:

Read Why you get triggered at work and how to stay calm by Obi James on LifeLabs

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