My late father was a brilliant and dedicated electrical engineer and project manager who didn’t go as far as he should have. He had his own theory about why: “It’s all politics, it’s all just office politics,” he used to say.
As a high-schooler, I’d listen quietly. Never having worked in an office myself, I still came up with a theory: “Office politics” is the art of getting along with other people. Of not letting your ego rub others’ egos the wrong way. Of putting yourself in a position where others will notice your good work. And of not putting yourself in a position where rivals can wreck what you’ve been building.
Once I had a chance to test my theory, I came to enjoy office politics. It’s got all the drama of real warfare, but everyone goes uninjured home somewhere ’round 5 pm (except for that martyr in the far cubicle who bitterly mumbles about how lazy everyone else is).
Whether you work in a business where “results matter” or a business where perception matters, office politics is relevant for who gets elevated and who gets “left behind” after the latest management rapture.
In 2014, there are five mistaken beliefs regarding office politics that can slow or even scuttle the career of a hard-working, bright, earnest person.
1. “Let the phonies go schmooze over drinks. I’m busy getting things done.”
Yeah, sure, but what you may be getting done is work that will help the person who gets promoted instead of you.
If you continually skip cocktail parties and happy hours and group lunches “so you can get some work done,” you’re kidding yourself. The gods aren’t going to record your good deeds, because frankly they’re off with your peers at happy hour.
It’s actually tragic: There are many gifted #2 and #3 figures who obsess about becoming the #1, but they do it all wrong. They spend all their energy on their work, but they fail to cultivate the right relationships with the network of people who can smooth their path to the top.
There was one top assistant football coach whom many assumed was the heir apparent for his legendary boss. When the time came, he was passed over for someone who better understood the importance of showing up at the right social events or taking the time to invite the right people to lunch. That’s how it goes.
The upshot is that we all need to stop blaming others for not seeing our own brilliance. It’s better to start blaming ourselves, especially while we can adjust course.
And no, this is no cosmic injustice. We humans are a social species. We’ve descended from animals that couldn’t make a real assessment of a peer until they could see them (and smell them) up close. People don’t get promoted to CEO just by doing hard work; they have to display a lot of social skill.
So until Googleperfects the robot overlords who will be able to decide with perfect objectivity who is most qualified for a job, close out that spreadsheet and start catching up with your officemates at the Keurig.
2. “I prefer to work with the good/competent/sane clique in our organization.”
Narrow office alliances are risky. They shift frequently, based on who’s offended whom. Instead, consider yourself allied with everyone in your office at some level.
But what if you get too unmeshed with one clique? What if you believe that you’ve got a safe alliance but then later fall out with them? Now they have a perfect memory of your off-color jokes, your tendency to steal office supplies, and your unvarnished opinion of Christine in payroll.
It takes discipline to be a reasonably good egg to everyone, and to not over-bond with any one clique in a way that marginalizes others who could be important to your growth.
3. “I don’t gossip.”
The heck you don’t. Everyone gossips. And it’s not all bad. A 2014 Stanford study found that office gossip is how workers learn how to identify and reform bullies, how to avoid being exploited by others, and how to encourage cooperation.
And a 2012 study by Stanford’s archrival UC Berkeley (whom Stanfordians frequently gossip about) found that gossip relieves stress and identifies dangers.
Don’t gossip too much. But don’t expect to be rewarded for being a standoffish saint who never shares about the people and the dynamics of your office.
4. “I’m taking what they did personally.”
“Everyone is as God made them … and often a good deal worse,” Sancho Panza observed in Don Quixote. They’re all doing the best they can, with their peculiar human mix of goodness and selfishness and insecurity and emphathy.
Don’t pretend to know other’s motives for doing something that you didn’t appreciate. Don’t read too much into their behaviors. They’ll in turn appreciate you more for leaving your inner drama at home.
5. “I’ve just been too swamped to return your messages.”
No one really cares if you’ve been too astonishingly busy to send back a quick acknowledgement of their own request. You might see this as an example of your own heroic struggles, but others will see it as a sign of flakiness or untrustworthiness.
But here’s a final irony: Office politics being what they are, if you’ve been building strong relationships at the cocktail parties and the lunch table, you may well survive this one. Cheers.
Rob Asghar is the author of the newly released Leadership Is Hell, with all proceeds supporting programs to increase college access for under-served youth in the Los Angeles area.