Office Politics Offers Ways to Get Ahead

Technology pros who can understand the political landscape in their organization can use it to a career-boosting advantage.

By Eric B. Parizo | October 2008


Politics exists in every workplace, and IT departments are no exception. Amidst the constant competition for projects, resources, promotions and raises, nearly everyone has a story of unscrupulous coworkers who took advantage of a situation by cutting corners or
stomping on toes.

Despite its negative stigmas, office politics shouldn’t be considered the exclusive domain of
back-stabbers and manipulators. To the contrary, those technology pros who can  understand political landscape in their organization can use it to a career-boosting advantage.

Office politics most often boils down to a struggle for control, usually over resources,
information or people, said Timothy Johnson, chief accomplishment officer for Des Moines, Iowa-based consulting firm Carpe Factum, Inc., and author of Gust: The ‘Tale’ Wind of Office Politics.

IT’s Complicated

Individual or group success typically depends on tough tasks like pushing a project to the top of the queue, finding the right people to work on it and getting the time and tools to do the job right. In the context of IT, these struggles are complicated by the many complex issues in play at any given time.

“Show me an IT pro who doesn’t answer to at least two different bosses, either implied or not,” Johnson says. “Then you look at all the different technical issues going on, like who has the best software selection, who can make decisions about OSes and compatibility.
Information is also part of it, such as who has what information at what time.”

These are issues Paul Davidson knows well. A Chicago-based MIS manager for a multinational enterprise, Davidson has had plenty of colleagues over the years who spent more time watching their backs than doing their jobs. Others seemed to make a favorite pastime of simply damaging coworkers’ careers.

Skills Trump Politics?

Oddly enough, because the need for certain specialized skills is so great, those who don’t play well with others often still succeed, he notes. “In IT, it often comes down to whether you’re a competent resource, even if you are the biggest loudmouth in the group,” Davidson says.
“I’ve seen people who seem to offend anybody, but their phones rings all the time with people asking them for advice because they’re good at what they do.”

However, Johnson says, if unhealthy office politics goes unchecked it can lead to more overtly offensive behavior, such as emotional bullying and all-out sabotage of others’
efforts. When coworkers are doing a number on each others’ psyches day in and day out, absenteeism, poor-quality work and a high rate of employee turnover are often the result.

The answer to all this: Play the game the right way. That means mastering a few simple strategies and avoiding a couple of key mistakes.

Perhaps the biggest faux pas is to make inappropriate comments to coworkers without considering their ramifications. Shortly after starting a new job several years ago, Davidson went to lunch with a new colleague and remarked on an ugly car parked in front of the restaurant. As it turned out, the vehicle belonged to the vice president of his new firm. “Good thing he wasn’t in the restaurant standing next to me when I said that,” Davidson says.

Another common mistake is simply being too trusting, especially with potentially career-damaging information. Johnson once knew of an intern who called in sick with a family emergency, but went to a party that night and posted pictures on his Web site. Sure enough, one of his coworkers saw them, alerted the boss, and the internship came to an abrupt end.

While attending the party was clearly a mistake, Johnson thinks the intern damaged his career by sharing information about the party with someone who couldn’t be trusted. “In the world of social networking, you never really know who is connected with whom,” he observes. “Annoying the wrong person can have disastrous effects on your career.”

Careful Communication

Conversely, being a successful office politician first and foremost means developing a rapport with coworkers – without being gossipy or delving into personal issues. By and large IT pros are known for their technology skills, not their communication abilities, Johnson says.

Still, he believes it’s important to understand the communications style of one’s group or department, especially since those who rise to management positions tend to be good communicators.

That extends to e-mail and electronic communications. Johnson advises being judicious when using the “reply all” and “bcc” options – to avoid a “piranha-like feeding frenzy” – and to write every e-mail calmly and respectfully, “as if the CIO might read it.”

Finally, Davidson says the best advice is to do more observing than talking. Before long, it’ll become clear what most people’s motives are. “Be cognizant of who’s around you at any given time. It’s okay to say something (controversial) with a friend, but if they’re not a friend, it may come back to bite you,” he says. “It’s also really important not to be drawn into the negative conversations that go on.”

Eric B. Parizo is a writer specializing in technology.

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