Office politics can make or break your career.
And political mistakes can cost you a promotion, or even a career, independently of your work performance.
Sometimes, they can even cost you your job because of too good job performance.
That’s why you are well-advised to develop your political acumen alongside your skills.
This post will show you some political landmines you need to be aware of, and, in so doing, how you can be more effective at work politics.
- 1. Getting Chummy With Falling Stars
- 2. Taking Sides Too Early
- 3. “Licking Up & Kicking Down”
- 4. Gossiping (The Politically Dumb Way)
- PRO Tip: Gossip Smart. Communicate power, while keeping power
- 5. Leading The Charge (& Becoming The Battering Ram)
- 6. Objecting Organizational Changes
- 7. Keeping Your Loyalty With Old Boss / Management
- 8. Failing to Decode Corporate-Speak
- 9. Flirting With Assistants & Secretaries
- 10. Forming Out-Groups With Management
- 11. Over-Promoting Your Ideas Before Having Power
- 12. Putting All Eggs in The Boss’ Basket
1. Getting Chummy With Falling Stars
Who are falling stars?
Falling stars are former high flyers who are nose-diving in the power hierarchy.
Often they know fully well they are on their way down, and guess what happens?
Their former, inaccessible and haughty selves suddenly become friendly and gregarious.
And lower-level employees, star-struck by their big names, are all too happy to get closer to them.
Often that’s not a good idea.
The issue is that falling stars are falling because they royally pissed off someone at the very top.
If you get too close to them, they won’t help you up, but they will likely drag you down.
Their newly minted bad reputation will infect you like a disease: upper management will see you as the friend of their enemy.
And that makes you an enemy, too.
Falling stars are sometimes in the last weeks in the organization and they can get bitter and negative. Once they’re out, you’ll be out of a (useless) friend and will still be reeling from the bad infection.
2. Taking Sides Too Early
What do the politically clueless do during a power struggle?
They quickly take up arms for one side or the other.
Which, of course, is as smart as betting on red or black -that is, not smart at all-.
The political strategist instead keeps cordial relations with both warring factions. He waits out the political struggle -or at least until it’s safe to place his chips-.
And in the meanwhile, he looks like he is too busy focusing on work and work only to worry about warfare.
That way, whoever wins, they will consider him a friend of the organization.
He delivers results, seems only concerned about the overall health of the organization and looks supra-partes, garnering respect from both factions.
Whoever wins, he’ll be fine.
Then, when the war ends, strong of his reputation, he begins his own political campaigning.
2.2. Mach Move: pick (both) sides privately
A politically astute move is to take sides privately.
That way, if the side you picked wins, you’re on the winning coalition. If they lose, nobody will know.
See Pete Campbell in Mad Men doing exactly that:
Guy 1: Regimes change are always tricky. You wanna stay neutral. Loyalists are always hung
Guy 2: (goes to the partner and shares the news)
Of course, the next step, most Machiavellian thing you can is to take sides, privately, with both factions.
The risk they will communicate with each other is very low.
3. “Licking Up & Kicking Down”
Licking up and kicking down.
How many times have you heard that as the “Machiavellian” way of winning at office politics?
Except it’s only true in the most fucked up organizations.
Just think of it: who’s more likely to succeed in the long run, the person who is hated by his subordinates and loved by his superiors, or the person who is loved and respected up and down the chain?
Having support from below is like leading a grassroots movement. When it becomes large enough, it can help you carry upward.
And of course, you never know who will become the next heavy hitter, and people who seem useless today might become useful in the future.
3.2. The Machiavellian “Licking Up & Kissing Down”: “Shine Up, Praise Down”
Watch out for bosses who praise you a lot within the team, but not outside of it.
That’s the Machiavellian way of hogging all the credit where it matters -with the upper management- and keeping you stuck -but happy- within the team.
The internal praise is the equivalent of throwing some ego candies while the boss truly works on his own career -with your own hard work-.
4. Gossiping (The Politically Dumb Way)
There is power in being “in the know” in the company.
And yes, sharing juicy information does show power for being part of a restricted circle of informational flow.
Says Geoffrey Miller:
If the gossiper usually knows some news that the listener does not know, the gossiper may have privileged access to secrets, or a wider social network, or or friends who themselves have privileged access to social information. That is, the gossiper must have high social status
Gossiping also helps form “cliques”, which can be the beginning of power alliances.
So, yes, there are some political advantages in gossiping.
But there are also major issues with gossiping.
To begin with, as soon as you spill the juice all is left is an empty carton.
When you gossip you give away information and you get back the reputation of a gossiper.
That’s a losing trade.
From a power point of view, gossiping is in large part harmful ego-massaging.
Of course, people will like you for sharing the gossip. But they also lose respect for you. Everyone uses and enjoys a gossiper, but nobody respects him.
The second major issue is: who are you forming a gossiping clique with?
Because a good chunk of gossiping happens at the lower level of the organization, with people using gossip as an escape valve for their humdrum boring job.
Gossiping at the higher levels tends to be different. As a matter of fact, how you share information is one of the main ways to recognize executive materials from the rank and file.
It’s one of the “secret handshakes”, and one of the “executive skills” you better develop.
Executives share their information quick and dry, almost to purposefully show disdain towards gossiping.
Leaders are afraid of being seen as gossipers. They prefer an image of doers who focus on getting stuff done and have no time to waste. The winners of this world know that the true power players are not the ones doing the gossip, they are the ones others gossip about.
This is how you show you’re a baller, get the facts, straight to the point, then get to work:
Don: You wanted to see me?
Roger: About 3 weeks ago (pause) I hope you were looking for a job in Califorinia. Because you’re going to need one
Notice he does not ask where he’s been, or what’s happened. That would be the “gossipy” talk.
Instead, Roger Sterling makes it a point to show off that he doesn’t care. All he cares is Don reporting to work and get stuff done.
Notice how the rest of the talk is all straight to the point, all the side stories about gossiping are purposefully left unexplored -or leveraged to display how they are both above gossiping-.
Roger Sterling uses a juicy personal life gossip as a joke:
Don: Any conflicts?
Roger: Mona hasn’t been pleasant since my engangement (introduces a gossiping topic, but as a joke)
Don: (smiles, knows it’s a joke) With the deal. But… Congratulations
Roger: (immediately back to business) Thank you (pause: shows that he’s unharried and calm even with life-changing topics) very few conficlits. Coop and Allis jumped on it. I wasn’t gonna make troubles. (pause) Well, now you can go back to your office and figure how much I made on this (invites him to leave: the business talk is finished, there is no point in standing around and chit-chatting)
And then little later Don refuses to even say a word about politics. That’s how hardened, hard-balling executives behave.
4.2. Most of all, avoid gossiping with those below you
The worst type of gossiping is negative gossiping, with people below your pay grade. There is nothing to gain there and everything to lose.
“Showing off” your political knowledge to those below you adds little value because the truly important information comes from above, not from below.
Here is a good way to handle a lower-level employee when they try gossip on you:
Peggy: I don’t wanna sit and listen to someone talk about their water retention
Joan: Peggy, brides are very self-conscious (refuses to gossip and back-talk on other colleagues)
Keep the good information for the people at your level or higher, and only use it strategically.
Don’t gossip just for gossiping’s sake: all you get back is a bad reputation.
PRO Tip: Gossip Smart. Communicate power, while keeping power
There are better ways of showing you are in the know than gossiping, talking behind people’s back, and giving out details of other people’s lives.
For example, when others share juicy information with you, you can nod and mutter “yeah, I know”.
“How does he know?”, people will think. And they will conclude that you are just in the know as they are, probably more. And will respect you for keeping your mouth shut.
Or consider this simple, yet genius technique: only share positive information that makes people look good.
For example, you can say that it makes sense the managing director stays in shape because he runs 5km every morning. When you know those personal details about people, it means you must be close to them. People will know that you’re in the know. It has the same positive effect of gossiping, but without the downsides: you are either not detracting value from colleagues, or you are complimenting them.
5. Leading The Charge (& Becoming The Battering Ram)
Who is the battering ram?
The battering ram is the person in a group of complainers and conspirators who leads the assault.
When you have an issue with someone or something at work, people will usually start complaining. But it will take a long time before anyone does something about it.
Well, the battering ram is the person who acts.
It’s the person who stands up at the meeting and tells the boss everyone is tired of his attitude.
It’s the guy who walks into the CEO’s office to complain.
And it’s the woman who takes the first step in filing a sexual assault complaint against the boss who jokes a little bit too much.
It takes courage to make the first step and, from a power perspective, it might be the first step that makes you the leader of a big change.
But these situations carry big risks, too.
The risk when everyone complains but nobody wants to take action is that they might be hiding behind you.
And after you have made your move public, you might turn around only to realize too late that there is no one walking the talk and backing you up. That happens relatively often if your first move is not highly successful.
And if that’s the case, you’re (politically) screwed.
There is some overlap between “leader” and “battering ram”. But while the leader has actual power, the battering ram takes far more risks to become one, with far more uncertain rewards.
Being the battering ram is a very high risk, for high rewards. Such as, on average, the risks outstrip the rewards.
Battering Ram Set-Up
The battering ram might also be a political set-up.
People pretend to be angry and to be ready to stand behind you.
But then, as soon as you make the first step, they will even deny they ever agreed with you.
And then you’re out.
If you’re not sure, it’s best that you organize a small group of people to take action together with you. Like walking all together to your boss’ boss’s office, or all going to HR at the same time.
6. Objecting Organizational Changes
Standing against change is one of the most common political mistakes.
Think of it this way: why does change happen?
Changes to organizational structure, priorities or projects don’t happen randomly. And they don’t happen because John the security guard wanted to.
Change happens because someone at the very top wants to change. And opposing change is like opposing the movers and shakers of your company.
When you refuse the change, reject it and complain about it, you are basically giving a big middle finger to some of the most powerful individuals in your organization.
At best, you get a reputation of a complainer. At worst, the top brass will recognize your resistance and you will become the internal enemy.
Here are the approaches you can take in regard to change:
- Embrace the new way, make a show of it for upper management, and thrive in it
- Leave for greener pastures
- Become a complainer
Guess which one suits you best?
As Jack Welch says in his book “Winning“, the executives who promoted the change love to see people embracing it and championing it.
For them, it’s like receiving a compliment with your actions -much more powerful than your words-. Embrace the change, and they will see an ally in you.
7. Keeping Your Loyalty With Old Boss / Management
You know the motto:
The King is Dead, Long Live The King
Remember, when a new boss enters the scene, it’s a clean slate for you.
That might not be cool, if you were very close to your old boss, or if you had a promotion lined up.
But that’s how it is.
Not all is lost for the smart strategist though.
You can try to have your old boss talk to the new one or, even better, have your old boss talk to his boss and let the new boss know that you’re a good guy in pole position for a promotion or salary increase.
On the other hand, a new boss and/or new management are a great opportunity.
People will be scared, afraid of their jobs, looking around, clinging to the past… And you instead will be running towards the novelty with your arms open.
Finally, once the new boss enters, don’t talk about “how it was before”. That never fails to piss off the new one.
The old boss can’t do anything anymore except of saying: talk to the new one.
The caporegimes lost an opportunity to increase their standing when they went to the old boss, rather than going straight to Mike right away.
8. Failing to Decode Corporate-Speak
You heard these:
- Employees are our biggest asset
- We put customers first
- Our aim is to change the world for the better
Some, especially the younger and more naive, truly believe the official company line.
And while there is some truth in them, they are far from the whole truth.
The truth is this: most people will always put themselves and their needs above the needs of the company.
And the other way is even truer.
The company, which represents the interests of the owners, the shareholders, and the C-suite, will always put its interests above those of the employees.
Sometimes those interests overlap, and everything seems jolly.
But don’t get lulled into a false sense of fraternity.
When the interests start diverging… You will realize.
To the company, employees matter… Until they don’t matter anymore at the drop of a hat. As Dan Rust says in “Workplace Poker“: it’s your output that matters, not you as a human being.
It’s not mean.
Cold, yes, but not mean.
You can have stronger bonds and relationships with your colleagues. Just not with your employer.
With your employer, it’s more likely to be a pure self-interest-based exchange.
You can also enjoy and warm up to your employer, and I even recommend that.
But still, don’t forget the true exchange-based deal. You must seek to get the most out of it. Because they’re trying to get the most out of you.
9. Flirting With Assistants & Secretaries
Might not be a jail bait, but unless you’re her boss, she’s a pink-slip bait
Maybe you’re a cool guy and you’d like to make a move on those personal assistants (PAs).
But that could easily be a political mistake. Bosses often develop a protective attitude towards their assistants.
They can become their mentors, protectors, or sexual partners.
Here is the funny thing: even when bosses are not sexual partners of their PA, they still get jealous and protective (just like any other stupid man).
One because they might still want people to believe that they are having sex with their assistants -or at least leave people in doubt-.
And second, because many male executives consider men hitting on their secretaries a personal slight.
So, what to do?
Either don’t make a move on the PA.
Or do what you should always do: make a move on the low, do your thing quietly. Let the big ego do the show-off of public flirting. You be the silent killer, instead.
The same applies to any female employees the bosses appear to be fond of.
10. Forming Out-Groups With Management
If you want to be management material, you must feel to them like you’re an ingroup.
The most politically clueless individuals instead stay stuck in lower-level roles because they form outgroups.
Here is one example:
I remember sitting in a big room as a consultant on a lean project.
A first-level manager bumped into an airplane model on the way to the meeting table, and a high-level manager made a joke on what it would cost to fix that airplane.
A brief discussion of the actual costs of the model ensued, and this was the dialogue:
Random guy: actually they’re very expensive, I remember it was around 3.000 each
High-Level Manager: wow, that’s more than my weekly salary
First-Level Manager: I definitely need to be careful then, I’m not one of you big paycheck guys.
The first manager smirked as he thought he had done a cool joke.
But the “joke” was politically idiotic in countless ways.
First, it sounded slightly derogatory towards upper management, as if they were making too much money.
Equally important, these types of jokes stress the differences between you and the powerful people. They communicate there is a group of higher-earner, “you”, and there is me here. And we are worlds apart.
10.2. To Join Upper Management, Look Like Upper-Management
Remember, you will only get promoted into upper management if you already look and sound like one.
You must look like you belong in the club if you wanna enter the club.
The best way to become upper management is for upper management to feel like you are already one of them.
Then they will want to officialize your position with the title.
Downplay the differences and show the similarities. Show the ways you are like them, how you understand them and you will soon become a heavy hitter yourself.
11. Over-Promoting Your Ideas Before Having Power
Career strategist Brendan Reid got this right:
If you’re the owner or CEO, think big and you’ll be praised for it.
Think strange and you’re a visionary.
But if you’re still working your way up you’re better off being a cheerleader of management’s vision rather than over-promoting your own ideas.
Yes, being passionate is good.
But being overly passionate for an idea or strategy that doesn’t seem to catch on is counterproductive. Worst of all is if you keep promoting it after it’s already received lukewarm feedback.
At best, your visions running against management’s vision will signal that you don’t really understand what business is all about.
At worst, you will brand like a problematic employee who doesn’t like the company’s vision and doesn’t fit the culture.
Don’t get me wrong: do not throw away your vision and ideas. As a matter of fact, cultivate them and improve on them with a healthy dose of realism.
Then let them blossom… Once you’re up there.
But while you get there, focus on bringing business, cutting costs and looking and talking like upper management (and let the differences manifest later).
12. Putting All Eggs in The Boss’ Basket
Yes, you do need to work your boss.
However, you don’t want that to be your only source of power.
As Robert Greene says in The Laws of Human Nature, the “favorite” position can be dangerous. It’s likely to stir envy among your colleagues and isolate you.
And it’s all too easy-going from “too close” to “disliked”.
As with romantic relationships, smaller gestures carry more weight when we are close. And with a boss there is no sex, cuddling, and intimacy to make up for those hurt feelings.
Especially with touchy and finicky bosses, build great relationships while you also deliver good work, promote yourself outside the team, and expand your other sources of power.