Contrary to popular belief, engaging in office politics can be a smart move for your career. After all, office politics are rather inescapable; since they can impact your career, remaining indifferent proves difficult.
What are office politics?
"To borrow from the political scientist, Harold Laswell, office politics can be understood as the unwritten rules that determine who gets what, when, and how — a promotion, a budget for a project, a say in the boss’s decisions — and who doesn’t," write Harvard researchers Robert Kaiser, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Derek Lusk, authors of Playing Office Politics Without Selling Your Soul. "This is why we dislike politics so much: when our fate depends on unwritten rules — especially when they conflict with official, stated rules and make the system seem rigged or at least hypocritical — things are bound to seem arbitrary and unfair."
Why should you engage with office politics?
That's why it's no surprise that, when employees perceive their workplaces as more political, they're less engaged, less productive and more likely to quit their jobs, according to the researchers. But they offer a solution — and that's to engage in those office politics instead of complaining about them.
"Much of what we mean by corporate 'culture' provides clues for understanding office politics," they explain. "Culture is the tapestry of taken-for-granted assumptions, values, beliefs, norms and habits that determine 'the way we do things around here.' Some aspects of culture are desirable traits that organizations are proud to proclaim ('We are a high-performance organization.' 'We stand for diversity and inclusion.'). Others are not ('We are conflict avoidant.'). The term 'politics' is used to describe certain aspects of this dark side of culture. Learning to decode, and speak, this secret language of organizations is pivotal to your career survival and to becoming a major player at work."
So how do you engage in office politics without, as the researchers put it, selling your soul? Here's what they suggest.
How to use office politics to your advantage
1. Know the difference between good and bad politics.
Before getting involved in office politics, it's important to know what's worth your time and what's not — because what's worth your time can help you, and what's not can indeed hurt you.
"Bad politics are pretty easy to identify — they include the wrangling, maneuvering, sucking up, backstabbing and rumor mongering people use to advance themselves at the expense of other people or the organization," the researchers explain. "Bad politics are, at the heart, about promoting oneself by any means necessary. And really bad politics are about being sneaky, perhaps even Machiavellian or immoral, to intentionally harm someone else for personal gain."
On the other hand, good politics involve advancing your interests but not at the expense of others or the organization. This means engaging in "acceptable ways of getting recognition for your contributions, having your ideas taken seriously and influencing what other people think and what decisions get made."
So long as these politics serve a higher purpose, there's nothing wrong with advancing your own interests, the researchers suggest.
2. Practice good politics wisely.
Jumping into office politics without a solid plan isn't a smart idea. You know what you're doing first, and how to play the game well. The Harvard researchers suggest practicing the political skills that can be broken down into four dimensions: social astuteness, interpersonal influence, networking ability and apparent sincerity.
Social astuteness refers to "the ability to read other people and the self-awareness to understand how they see you." In other words, while many people think of self-awareness as introspection, the researchers suggest that its essence is actually "other-awareness," meaning knowing how others perceive you and the ways in which your behaviors impact them.
Interpersonal influence refers to "a convincing ability to affect how and what other people think." To do this, you need to understand them and their own personal agendas.
Networking ability refers to "the capacity to form mutually beneficial relationships with a wide range of diverse people."
And apparent sincerity refers to "seeming to be honest, open and forthright," though it's not just enough to be honest, they insist, because "how honest you think you are is far less important than how honest other people think you are."
3. Make sure that your politics always have a higher purpose.
At the end of the day, it's important that when you engage in office politics, you're not only after your own agenda, but you're also out to benefit the company. You don't want your politic shrewdness to come across as selfish but, rather, selfless. After all, the more successful and satisfied you are at work, the more the company as a whole will benefit from your productivity and hard work. Frame your agenda in this light, and you'll have a much easier time navigating the world of office politics.
"The key to appearing influential rather than sly, selfish or manipulative is the apparent sincerity component of political skill," the researchers explain. "There is a way to use the unspoken rules to contribute to the greater good, advance your interests and maintain your honor and dignity."
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.