Office politics. A term that often elicits groans and sighs from employees worldwide. We all want a work culture that is nice, respectful, and open.
But sometimes, our workplace feels more like an episode of Survivor with deceitful snakes, secret alliances, and the fear of our tiki torch going out any day.
In this article, we’ll give you key tips to help you thrive in your office’s political culture while acting with integrity. These tips will help you gain political standing in your company, whether the politics are healthy and honest or cutthroat and shadowy.
What Are Office Politics?
Office politics refers to the informal power structures, relationships, and unspoken rules that govern interactions within the workplace. It includes how interpersonal dynamics impact your role and influence.
Office politics don’t have to be negative, but they can be tricky to navigate as everyone has different roles, influence, and statuses.
7 Tips to Survive (and Even Thrive!) Office Politics While Staying True to Your Values
Whether your office feels like the halls of Slytherin or your work culture is healthy with strong leadership, here are several tips to boost your standing, increase your positioning, and gain respect.
Create an Office Human Map
Getting a lay of the land is essential to understanding office politics. The key here is to understand who has influence and what are people’s strengths and weaknesses. First, make a list of everyone in your office (or everyone who is involved in your day-to-day).
Second, under each person’s name, write their strengths and areas of expertise. If you know what helps someone thrive, it can help you activate their strengths.
Third, identify each person’s influence. Everyone in the office has different levels of influence in different capacities.
The most obvious way to see this is through job titles. People higher up in the hierarchy have more power. The marketing manager, for example, has a trusted voice on all matters related to marketing.
But there are also levels of power and influence beyond job titles.
The purpose of understanding your workplace’s ecosystem of power is not for you to brown-nose the “right” people. Instead, this knowledge can aid you if you want to propose a company change, act as a leader, or exert influence.
For example, if you want to propose a new company policy, ask the right people to help you bring the proposal to life.
Action Step: Answer the following questions (inspired by the leadership framework of the five types of power1https://scholar.valpo.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1312&context=jvbl#:~:text=The%20five%20power%20dynamics%20(or,both%20the%20influencee%20and%20influencer.) to get a sense of who has different types of influence:
- Whose opinion is most respected because of their expertise?
- Who do people respect most because of their moral character?
- Who seems to be the most well-connected socially?
- Who is the most likable and charismatic person?
- Who are others the most afraid of?
- Who has power because of the information they control or have access to?
- Who is the most likely to set a cultural trend in the office?
- Who is seen as most “cool?”
Use this map to navigate office politics with the next steps.
Find refuge in genuine relationships.
It all starts with genuine connections.
But we’re not discussing schmoozing at corporate events or adding colleagues on LinkedIn. Building genuine relationships is about taking an interest in your coworkers as people, not just as stepping stones to your next promotion.
As famous entrepreneur Paul Graham2http://www.paulgraham.com/startupfaq.html#:~:text=Most%20successful%20startups%20have%20more,have%20a%20big%20advantage%20there. writes, “Most successful startups have more than one founder, and usually the founders seem to have been friends for at least a year before starting the company.”
These relationships can also be your safety net when navigating complicated company politics. People are more likely to have your back if they know and respect you.
But remember, you must build these relationships from a genuine interest in the other person.
Action Step: Write out a list of your coworkers you genuinely like. Then, next to each of their names, write a step you could take to deepen the relationship. Pick one of those and do it this week!
Here are some ideas for gestures you could enact:
- Purchasing them a small gift (if your relationship is close enough)
- Inviting them to go to lunch together
- Let them know you’d be happy to cover their shift soon if they want to take a day off.
Additionally, here’s a helpful guide on how to create meaningful conversations with coworkers.
Put on your generosity goggles.
You’ll see opportunities everywhere to help your colleagues when your generosity goggles are on.
Being generous3https://hbr.org/2011/06/be-generous-at-work means being eager to share your time, resources, or expertise with others. This can help new team members get up to speed, share valuable industry insights with coworkers, or offer a listening ear.
Often, generosity comes without the other person needing to ask. When you have your generosity goggles on, you’ll look for ways to help lighten others’ load or help others accelerate.
Aside from being admirable, generosity will also help your standing in office politics. Here’s how:
- Generosity enables you to build strong relationships with colleagues who are likely to reciprocate your generosity in times of need
- Being generous creates a positive work environment, making you a more valued and respected team member.
- People are more likely to collaborate with and support someone they perceive as generous and team-oriented
- Because of the reciprocity principle4https://www.bl.uk/people/robert-cialdini#:~:text=The%20reciprocity%20principle%20recognises%20that,uncomfortable%20being%20indebted%20to%20others., whenever you give to someone, they’ll want to give back to you. If you are generous to everyone, at some point, one of those people will be in a position to help your career, and they’ll want to be giving back.
But be attentive to your boundaries. Don’t give more than you can, don’t become a doormat, and don’t let others take advantage of you. Many people-pleasers provide too much. To be generous means helping others genuinely from a place of abundance; as a byproduct, you will build social capital.
Action Step: Write out a list of your colleagues. For each one, think of 1-3 ways that you could help them at work. Through your time, knowledge, creativity, or connections. Could you help them brainstorm for a project? Could you proofread something they wrote? Could you introduce them to someone?
Then, take action on at least one of these this week.
Become a social networking bridge.
Collaboration is a powerful practice because it allows you to build a strong, teamwork-based, mission-driven connection with another person while also creating a product or service that helps the company. You also benefit by absorbing some of your collaborator’s knowledge, practices, and wisdom when you collaborate.
About 75% of employers5https://online.queens.edu/resources/infographic/communicating-in-the-workplace/ consider collaboration to be very important.
Collaborating with someone from a different department or team is precious because you diversify your learning. And, because it makes you a social bridge.
In the psychology book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, the authors explain ways you can increase your influence from a social-network-theory perspective.
There are two key ways.
- Become the center of a social network
- Become a bridge between two social networks.
Don’t be afraid of any of the jargon. Let’s make this more clear. A social network is just a group of people.
For example, a college lecture hall class of 100 people is a social network. Most people in the class know at least one person. Some people see a lot of people. But nobody has a personal relationship with every other person.
So, what does it mean to become either the center of a social network or the bridge between two social networks?
Let’s look at this graphical social network image to find out.
Kinda cool looking, right? Each of those purple dots represents a person. And each line between two dots represents the relationship between two people.
If one of the dots is only connected to a single other dot, it means that someone only knows one person in the whole group. From an influence perspective, the dots that aren’t well-connected might not have too much influence.
The dots with the most influence are at the center of the massive globs because they are connected with many other people. These are the people who know everyone. Here’s a zoom-in of some of those socialites.
So many connections!
And the other influential people are the dots that bridge two globs.
For example, the dots in the zoomed-in image below that connect these two networks have a lot of influence! Even if they have fewer total connections than the socialites above. But because they are the sole person to connect to separate groups of people, they have a lot of influence. They are a bridge.
And you, too, can be a bridge.
Action Step: Brainstorm ten ideas for collaborative projects you’d like to take on. See if you can make five of those ideas involve collaborations with other departments or teams. Could you act on one of these ideas?
Stay true to your values
This one is important. When you’re hanging around people who partake in sleaze, it can be so tempting to sink to their level. But if you can act with integrity and stand by your values, you will respect yourself more, feel stronger, and ultimately, others may respect you more.
Acting with integrity can be hard and might only sometimes guarantee short-term wins. But over the long haul, it will lead to a life, a career, and a social circle you are proud of.
Action Step: Write out and rank your top four core values. Next to each deal, please write a short sentence about what it means to you. If you’d like support, here’s a useful worksheet to guide you through the process.
Then, take a few minutes to reflect on how you are actively living out each of those values in your workplace and how you could stand for that value even more.
For example, if one of your top values is honesty, you might reflect on how you vulnerably shared with your boss that you were feeling uncertain about the project you’re assigned to. And you might also notice that when a colleague asked you to get lunch, you told a white lie to get out of it.
One of the most effective ways to rise above office politics is to become an indispensable asset to your team and organization. The more difficult you are to replace, the more safe you’ll feel.
This isn’t about clocking in endless hours or spreading yourself too thin. Instead, focus on taking extra responsibilities that match your skill set and pique your interest. Being the go-to person for specific tasks or projects makes you invaluable and displays a level of initiative that’s hard to overlook.
Another complementary approach is to grow your skillset continuously. Always be on the lookout for ways to broaden your expertise and stay ahead of the curve. This could mean learning new software tools that benefit the team, attending industry seminars, or even cross-training to understand different aspects of your organization better.
Action Step: What is one more responsibility you could ask to take on? Ask for it!
Bonus: Is there a book or class you could dive into to boost your work skillset?
When in doubt, put your head down and do good work
There are times when the nuances of office politics can become overwhelming, leaving you needing help with how to proceed. When entangled in a web of complexities and can’t discern the best political move, fall back on a universally respected principle: do good work.
Exceptional performance is your most reliable ally that helps you set a solid foundation for your reputation.
In a healthy work environment, consistently delivering quality work will align with the company’s goals and values, reinforcing your place as a trusted team member. In a more politically charged setting, good work acts as your shield. Even when people are playing games, manipulating scenarios, or trying to undermine others, the quality of your work is difficult to dispute.
Action Step: What do you need to improve the quality of your output? More time? More uninterrupted work blocks? Help from a manager? Discern what will help you put out your best work, and then stick to that for the next week or more.
How to Handle These 10 Common Workplace Politics Games
Now that you have some tools, let’s dive into some of the challenges you might face in a hostile workplace political culture and how to handle each situation.
Someone tries to hook you into gossiping.
Certain coworkers perpetually talk about others, often negatively, and spread rumors like wildfire. This erodes trust. And if someone gossips about someone else, you can bet they’re also talking about you behind your back.
So, what should you do if someone tries to engage you in office gossip?
Tip: Steer clear! First, try to change the subject.
If that doesn’t stick, set a boundary. It could be as simple as “I don’t feel comfortable talking about Sam behind their back. What are you doing for lunch today?”
If the gossiper continues to try to ensnare you in their gossip, leave the conversation.
The manager is playing favorites.
Your manager gives better treatment to some people. Constantly praising them, giving them better assignments, and quicker access to promotions.
The apparent favoritism is affecting team dynamics and opportunities. What should you do?
Tip: Keep the focus on your work and how you can contribute to the team’s success. If the favoritism continues to hinder your work, you could try one of the following:
- Have a conversation with your manager, and bring up your concerns as respectfully as possible
- Bring the issue to higher superiors or HR. You can ask for your feedback to be kept confidential
- Ask to get transferred to a different team
Unjust credit stealing
Someone else takes credit for your hard work or ideas without acknowledgment. How should you respond?
Tip: First, address the issue directly but diplomatically with the individual involved.
If the problem persists, consider following up with a manager or HR, providing clear evidence of your contributions.
It might be tempting to seek revenge and steal credit back, but the honest game might serve you best in the long run.
You’re the target of public insults or demeaning behavior from peers or supervisors. Either their motivation is to diminish their status, or they are simply being mean.
What’s the best way to handle a bully in the workplace?
Tip: Keep your cool and refrain from retaliating.
Try having an honest conversation with the bully. Tell them it’s causing you harm, and ask if they could stop. Sometimes, a natural, human connection is enough to disarm someone.
But if this doesn’t help, you could try to document each incident meticulously and consider submitting a formal complaint to HR. Your well-being is paramount.
Being made into someone’s adversary
Certain individuals will deliberately pit colleagues against each other.
All of a sudden, Tim is telling Lisa about how much you hated her PowerPoint presentation. Before you can respond that you said nothing of the sort, Tim mentions, “Well, it makes sense you’d say that, given what Lisa said about the event you planned last week.”
What should you do if someone has given you an enemy you didn’t want?
Tip: Refuse to take the side you are put on. Reiterate that you don’t feel in opposition to the “enemy” you’ve been given.
If the situation feels unmanageable, it’s best to leave and clear the air with the “enemy” you were pitted against later in a calm and private conversation.
Vague and confusing communication
In some workplaces, communication is given so unclearly that it can be hard to know if you are receiving feedback, a new assignment, or a promotion.
Years ago, I used to work in retail, and I’d often read books while things were slow. One day, I was hanging out with a coworker outside of work, and he mentioned vaguely that the management didn’t like that I was reading at work. He shared this with me in a way that suggested he was doing me a favor. I felt like I needed clarification.
Did the manager say something about me reading? Did the manager ask my coworker to tell me? Why didn’t the manager tell me directly?
To this day, I still need clarification on the event. But I know that at the time, it chipped at my feelings of trust.
So, what should you do if the communication in your workplace could be better?
Tip: Take responsibility for clarifying all the communication you give and receive. If your manager says something and you’re unsure if you are supposed to draw assumptions, ask questions. Ask as many questions as you need to so that you feel clear on what you understand.
Passive-aggressive work behavior
Passive-aggressive behavior is when colleagues display hostility subtly, often behind a veneer of politeness. They will say something that sounds like it should have been nice, but it hurts to receive.
What’s the best way to handle a passive-aggressive colleague?
Tip: First, don’t take the bait. Often, when someone says something passive-aggressive, they want you to react. So first, take a breath.
Then you can try any of these options:
- Call out the unkind comment, saying, “I didn’t appreciate that.”
- Try to find what feedback they were smuggling inside of their sharp words and see if there’s any value in it.
- Get on their team. Say something like, “You made some good points the other day. From what I gathered, you were suggesting that I _____. Is that right?” If you join them, you can shift their energy into something more constructive.
Your business environment has an unspoken expectation that everyone will work excessive hours. And people will judge you for not working weekends.
What’s the best way to handle these silent pressures to overwork?
Tip: Sit down and clarify your boundaries around work-life balance. Then, stick to them. Your well-being isn’t worth jeopardizing to impress other people. If you keep feeling pressure to work more than your job description, consider planning an escape route to find something more value-aligned.
Gaslighting is when someone manipulates you into questioning your judgments or reality.
For example, imagine completing a report and emailing it to your manager. A week later, they criticize you for not submitting it on time. When you show her the sent email as proof, she dismisses it and says you were supposed to turn the report in days before that. This makes you question your reality and makes you doubt whether you sent the report on time.
If someone at work is wobbling your memory of something that happened, try this.
Tip: First, make it a habit to trust your perceptions. It can also be helpful to talk to someone you trust to get reality checks.
If the issue persists, it will be helpful to log, track, and record as much as you can. Record Zoom meetings and take screenshots.
This is when you find yourself unfairly blamed for failures or mistakes you didn’t commit.
When something goes wrong, this other person constantly points the finger at you, even if you have nothing to do with it.
How should you handle the constant blame and sabotage?
Tip: Keep a detailed account of your work activities and interactions. If you can, gather evidence to refute the claims against you. Should you need to defend yourself against false accusations, you’ll have proof to present to your supervisor or HR.
Also, make a habit of taking responsibility for the times that you do make errors. This will build others’ trust in your word and your integrity. So when you say you didn’t do something, they will believe you.
And in a specific situation where you’ve been scapegoated, if you need to defend yourself, hold yourself accountable for everything that was your responsibility, but nothing more.
Why It’s Important to Understand Office Politics
Learning about office politics isn’t about being Machiavellian or scheming your way to the top. It’s more about understanding the social ecosystem of your workplace so that you can operate within it effectively and with integrity.
You don’t have to play the politics game yourself. But if you can understand what’s happening, you can at least play defense. Because even the most fair organizations are not free from human emotions, biases, and agendas.
It’s similar to how it can be helpful to read about narcissists’ manipulation tactics so that if you are ever in close quarters with a narcissist, you can see their lovebombing from a mile away and avoid getting swept up.
If you’re dealing with a slimy office political climate, there is a way forward without getting your hands dirty.
If you’d like to understand the laws of influence more deeply, you might enjoy this free goodie:
Become More Influential
Want to become an influential master? Learn these 5 laws to level up your skills.
Frequently Asked Questions About Office Politics
Office politics can be a double-edged sword, positively and negatively affecting your career and work environment. It can open doors to opportunities and career advancement but also create a toxic environment that hinders performance and well-being.
Common challenges in navigating negative office politics include gossip, favoritism, backstabbing, and power struggles. Learning to navigate these issues effectively is key to maintaining your professional integrity and advancing your career.
Handling office politics positively and professionally involves maintaining open communication, building strong relationships, and focusing on your performance. You can navigate negative politics with the right approach without compromising your values or integrity.
Ethical concerns in office politics can range from dishonesty and manipulation to harassment and discrimination. It’s crucial to approach office politics with a strong moral compass, avoiding actions that compromise your or others’ integrity.
Emotional intelligence and social skills play a significant role in understanding and navigating office political behavior effectively. Interpersonal skills help you perceive the emotional undercurrents within your workplace and adapt your strategies accordingly, allowing for more nuanced interactions.
When approached with awareness and integrity, office politics can be leveraged for personal and professional growth. Understanding the dynamics can help you identify opportunities for career advancement while maintaining your values.
Takeaways on Office Politics
If you are feeling bogged down by the politics in your office, or if you want to learn how to gain a political advantage while staying true to yourself, then keep in mind these tips:
- Collaborate with new people. See if you can team up with someone on a project, especially if that person works on a different team or department
- Stay true to your values. Clarify your values, and take stock of how well you’re living them out.
- Understand who has influence. Think about who holds the power and respect in different domains of your workplace. Don’t befriend people because of their ability; get to know the political landscape. And then, if you ever need help with something, you’ll be aware of the right people to ask.
- Build genuine connections. Build friendships not because of politics but because you like and care about the other person.
- Look to help. How can you generously offer your time, creativity, knowledge, or connections to one of your coworkers to help them?
- Become indispensable. Gain expertise and take on more responsibility so you can’t be replaced.
- Do good work. When all else fails, do an excellent job with your responsibilities.
Best of luck navigating the complexities of office politics. You got this!
And if the problem you’re facing is less about the office culture and more about a few specific coworkers who are toxic, then this guide might be of service to you.
You can also check out our video below to learn how to stop toxic coworkers, and how to deal with difficult personalities at work:
How to Deal with Difficult People at Work
Do you have a difficult boss? Colleague? Client? Learn how to transform your difficult relationship.
I’ll show you my science-based approach to building a strong, productive relationship with even the most difficult people.