With The Resilience Coach, Nerice Gietel
What comes to mind when you think of office politics? Whether it is exhibited as favouritism, sabotaging a work rival or simply office gossip, the politics of the workplace can seem like a complex minefield. Unfortunately, the way in which the hierarchy of most organisations is structured means that encountering office politics is inevitable. “I’ve worked in companies of different sizes and with different cultures, and there was office politics in every one.” says Nerice Gietel, the WIP Resilience Coach.
Although potentially unavoidable, Nerice believes that being in a politically charged office can be a good learning experience as the situation introduces you to the complexity of human motivations and relationships. She has helped many clients navigate challenging work environments, and answered questions posed to her by the WIP Community.
Q: Why does office politics exist?
Office politics exists wherever more than one person is working and people want to increase their power and or influence. Leaders are expected to be good at influencing others so wherever there are leaders, followers, and people who are striving to be leaders there will be office politics.
The challenge can be working in environments that are highly politicised but where behaviours are not spoken about or challenged. A highly politicised environment is where there is a formal hierarchy that bears little or no resemblance to the actual informal power structures. Although everyone might observe it and be part of it, it is often taboo to talk about it.
“If you’re getting caught up in office politics, you need to understand why.” says Nerice. “Getting overly involved in office politics can have a huge effect on your personal and professional development. It can end up with you feeling sick or losing your confidence which can affect your next career steps.”
Q: I’m new in my ROLE, and there seems to a set of unwritten rules at my workplace.
Nerice suggests that you aim to observe the work culture even before you first enter your new environment in order to learn the unwritten rules. “For example, the company website may state that it’s a warm and friendly work environment but whilst waiting in the reception area to be interviewed you notice that nobody acknowledges you or the receptionist when they walk into the office. Or even worse, you hear staff clearly gossiping about their colleagues. Some of these issues are difficult to confirm before starting but be observant during the interview process and do your homework. Nowadays we have access to many resources to research companies before we join, such as Glassdoor.com. An interesting question to ask the hiring manager is: ‘what do you like about working here?’”.
Nerice says that she always encourages her clients to be aware of their values when they are looking for a new job. By being aware of these and trying to gauge those of an organisation before you join them you can avoid finding yourself in a work situation that is not right for you. A clash of values has been found to be one of the top five factors leading to workplace burnout. Knowing what your core values are is useful even if you are currently in a job because it can help you decide what level of values clash you can tolerate and where you want to draw the line.
Q: My manager has a favourite member of staff, and they get all the opportunities for progression.
Nerice suggests when you broach the conversation with your manager, focus on the desired positive outcome for the wider team, rather than complaining about not being treated fairly. Give an example to your manager of an opportunity for which you would like to be considered, such as chairing a team meeting. Focus on why it may be good for all and share why you think that you have the capabilities to be able to deliver what is required.
Q: Someone is trying to sabotage my work to put me in a bad light. what should I do?
But what if the behaviours are more subtle? Maybe you find out that your colleague has talked to your boss about you, for example. Nerice’s advice is to “put yourself in your colleague’s shoes for a moment and ask yourself ‘why did they do that?’ “It could be a simple misunderstanding or that your colleague feels that they have not been able to get through to you by speaking to you directly.” Trying to empathise with the person involved – or at least trying to see from their perspective - can give you a more objective, less emotionally charged viewpoint which could help you choose the most rational course of action. “Whether it’s personal or professional, understanding people’s personalities and how people prefer to be approached is important for the desired outcome.” A starting point can be to get a better understanding of your own personality and preferences through a Myers-Briggs Personality Test or whatever personality assessment tool you prefer. Paying attention to how people talk about certain subjects can give you an indication of how it may be best to approach a difficult conversation with them. But always be aware that your interpretation may not always be correct.
Q: I am the subject of office gossip, but I haven’t done anything wrong.
Is gossip always malicious, or is it sometimes just human nature? Nerice says it depends on the context. “People sometimes share certain gossip as a form of management,” she says. “Gossip can be framed as a method of persuasion, sharing specific snippets to get you to make a certain decision or come around to their story-teller’s point of view.” Gossip might feel like a personal attack, but Nerice says sometimes it’s not about you at all. Despite this, you should still acknowledge your feelings about the experience. You might feel hurt, anger and sadness.”
To move past these feelings, Nerice suggests that you consider which elements are within your control, and which are not. Can you realistically stop everyone talking about you? The answer is almost always ‘no’. So it may be better to accept this, and then focus your energy on things that you can control – such as who you share what (personal) information with.
People often use gossip as a way of venting but it is worth noting that if you are part of the gossiping clique, it is likely that the person gossiping with you is also gossiping about you. “Someone I once worked with used gossip as a way of gathering information from staff,” recounts Nerice. “Because this person would candidly share information people would relax, and in an attempt to reciprocate and solidify the bond they felt that gossiping offered them with this person, they would start sharing information themselves. By doing this they ran the risk of playing office politics without realising it,” says Nerice.
Gossip might feel like a personal attack,
but often it’s not about you at all.
Office politics dos and don’ts
Do know the difference between constructive criticism and office politics
Sometimes it’s not them, it’s you. Before you label a comment from a colleague as political or bullying, for example, look back at the context. “Have you missed a deadline? Has what you’ve said been inappropriate or undermined someone? Some criticism needs to be taken in the spirit in which it’s given: as constructive feedback.” Nerice says. Although what constitutes as office politics can vary, as well as observing others’ actions, remember to observe your own.
Do build positive relationships
Nerice suggests that the only way you can understand office politics to develop relationships both with your immediate colleagues, and with people elsewhere in your organisation. “Get to know people as human beings, rather than as a job title. When you are able to communicate and connect with people on a more personal level, it’s amazing what you can achieve. If you find a common ground outside of a work relationship, it humanises everyone involved in the situation.” While this might not work with everyone, it will feel good that you attempted to take this step.
When you start off on a career path, you begin with a set of values that have been established through your family, education and how you view the world. “My set of values are about being hard working, having pride in my work but also a clear vision about how people should be treated,” says Nerice. She suggests that by staying true to your personal values can help you to recognise the negative aspects of your office culture more quickly and keep yourself on the periphery of this behaviour. Being your authentic self at work may mean you have to speak out on occasions about toxic behaviours, and although sometimes frightening this is a good opportunity to reread your company policy and procedures documents. If you are including honesty in your values, it is likely that these policies will be on your side. Whatever the outcome, you can still be happy with the action that you took because you stayed true to yourself.
“You may not want to engage in office politics, but it is a reality of most companies,” confirms Nerice. She believes that dealing effectively with office politics actually makes you a better employee in the long run. “You will learn negotiation skills to manage tricky stakeholders and your new found soft skills make you adaptable to any situation.”
If you can’t tolerate the environment in your office, then a difficult decision may have to be made. It is unlikely you can change a whole organisation, and if it’s unlikely that it is going to improve you need to decide what you can tolerate and what is best for you in the long term. This is not a failure, it is realising your sphere of control and what you can control. “Focus on the overall outcome you need” says Nerice. “For example, you might determine that your boss simply doesn’t like you, or unjustifiably gives preferential treatment to one of your colleagues. However, at the same time you might recognise that the job is giving you valuable experiences and that, perhaps, sticking it out for a year or so will be beneficial to your longer-term career goals. This can then turn a negative into a positive decision, as you will move forward in your current situation with a defined timeline. But you should be clear on your deadlines and your next steps. After getting control of this situation, you may even feel a sense of relief that powers you through and allows you to quiet the noise around you.”
You may not want to engage in office politics, but it is a reality of most companies
Because of the complexities of defining it, office politics can be stressful for those involved. Harassment may be considered to be more straightforward, for example someone touching you inappropriately or using discriminatory language is difficult to be misconstrued (yet still is in certain workplaces) and there is likely to be a company policy for you to refer to. But office politics is more insidious. The nuances of language and behaviours can be compounded by the working culture of the organisation.
Nerice suggests the first course of action is to try to understand the people you are working with before escalating anything, as one of the main ways to get through office politics to know people, on a human level. Remember, you are an imperfect person holding imperfect information from imperfect people. Maybe with this compassion you can be the start of a small change.
What advice to you have for dealing with office politics? Let us know in the comments!
Nerice Gietel, The Resilience Coach
Nerice is a Certified Executive Coach with 15 years of experience in deploying her skills to support people to develop personally and professionally. She is an advocate for gender equality in the workplace, having had articles published in China Daily.