Office Politics and How to Turn Them to Your Advantage

Politics exist in every workplace, and the IT department is 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.

But despite its negative stigmas, office politics shouldn’t be considered the exclusive domain of back-stabbers and manipulators. To the contrary, those who can understand their organization’s political landscape 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, and author of Gust: The ‘Tale’ Wind of Office Politics.

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. Each department will have its own dynamics in play at any given time, as well. For example, "Show me an IT pro who doesn’t answer to at least two different bosses, either implied or not," says Johnson. "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."

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. "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," observes one executive.

Still, left unchecked, unhealthy office politics 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 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. For example, don’t remark on the ugly car parked in front of the building: It could belong to your new vice president.

Another common mistake is simply being too trusting, especially with potentially career-damaging information. If you call in sick with a family emergency, don’t go to a party that night and post pictures of it on Facebook. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine one of your coworkers spotting them and alerting the boss. Remember: In the world of social networking, you never really know who’s connected with whom. 

Careful Communication

Being a successful office politician means developing a rapport with coworkers – without being gossipy or delving into personal issues. It’s important to understand the communications style of your group or department, especially since those who rise to management positions tend to be good communicators.

That extends to e-mail and electronic communications. Be judicious when using the "reply all" and "bcc" options, and write every e-mail calmly and respectfully. A good rule of thumb: Imagine the CIO will read it.

Finally, 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 might be okay to say something controversial to a friend, but if they’re not a friend, what you say may come back to haunt you.

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