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Winning at Office Politics...Without Selling Your Soul

By Marty Nemko

Ever notice how some mediocre employees rise while more competent ones languish? Often, it's because they know how to play office politics.

I know, I know. You'd like to think you can succeed purely on the merits. True, in some offices you can, but in many others, you must know how to play the game. Here's how to win at office politics--without having to sell your soul.

Positive Politics

In office politics, as in most things, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Once a co-worker or boss is out to get you, it's hard to keep your back unstabbed. Play positive politics, though, and chances are, your co-workers and bosses will turn any stabbing instincts elsewhere. Here are a few of my favorite positive politics strategies:

  • Periodically ask respected higher-ups for counsel. That encourages them to think of you as a protégé. In turn, they’re more likely to come to your defense when you need it.

  • Do unrandom acts of kindness. For example, stay late one night to help a co-worker on a deadline. Or send a handwritten thank-you note to the person who gave you that MSWord tip. Or my favorite office politics weapon: Bring in something to share. Some bring in home-baked cookies. When I used to work for an organization, I used to bring in roses and tomatoes from my garden.

  • Do visible important tasks. If such tasks aren't in your job description, ask if you can take on one. Be sure everyone knows you did the work. For example, you might e-mail key employees a draft of your project’s final report "for feedback" and to ensure that your boss or rival doesn't try to steal the credit.

Keeping Your Antennae Out

Sometimes, despite playing positive politics, one or more people will want you to look bad--if only because he wants that promotion you're vying for. You can’t respond to their machinations unless you know who the perpetrator is. Here are a few ways to find out:

  • Are you being kept out of the information loop? Who's behind that?

  • Are you not getting the resources you need to get your job done? Who’s behind that?

  • At meetings, does someone always seem to disagree with you, if not verbally, by sighing, rolling his eyes, or appearing not to pay attention when you’re speaking?

  • When you ask someone for support or advice, do you get the sense that she’s annoyed?

  • When you talk one-on-one with your suspected saboteur, does he always seem eager to cut the conversation short?

When You Feel You're Losing the Game

You have the sense that someone’s sabotaging you. Now what? Hopefully, by having kept your antennae out, you know who that person is. Here are some strategies for foiling her:

1. Get feedback from a supporter. Say something like, “I’m concerned that Mary is annoyed with me. Have you noticed that? Anything you think I should do?”

2. Respond with strength. If your saboteur tries to put you down, especially in front of others, don’t wimp out; make a strong response, perhaps using humor. For example, let’s say, at a meeting, you’re proposing a solution to a problem. Throughout your presentation, Joe is slouching and doodling. You might say something like, “Joe, it looks like my idea is putting you to sleep. Either you went to a heckuva party last night or you have a better solution. Care to share it?”

3. Privately confront the backstabber. For example, "I've noticed that you seem annoyed with me. Am I doing anything wrong?" If you get useful feedback, fine. Thank her and offer to work on improving. If, however, you sense that her reason for annoyance is unjustified, you need to be strong. For example, you might say, "Mary, you’re withholding key information from me. Things have to change starting now or I’ll have to go to the boss."

4. Inoculate: Tell others that you're concerned that (insert perpetrator’s name), for selfish gain, is unfairly trying to denigrate you. Point to specific evidence of unfairness or you may be perceived as the backstabber.

Chances are, though, if you play positive politics, you'll never have to go into attack mode. Your version of office politics may rarely get meaner than bringing brownies.

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