Office politics and power can be good, bad or neutral depending on the behavior and motivation of individuals who move them one way or the other.

Because today’s business arena is so highly competitive, ever-changing, and jobs are no longer for life, politics and their accompanying power games are flourishing! Even a woman in management who wants no part of political gamesmanship or power games needs to understand how they are played.

Understand How Your Office Politics
And Power Games Are Played

Office politics is an offshoot of an organization's corporate culture. To understand how it works in your organization’s culture, Michelle Neely Martinez, a specialist in workplace issues who assumes your CEO is a Boomer, makes the following four suggestions.

Politics is about power. And there’s no standard definition of power. You have to pinpoint the factors considered “powerful” in your organization. Every organization has its own way of determining or gauging how much power someone has. Sometimes they are tangible, like a unique benefit or perk. Sometimes it’s a matter of perception, such as having a more desirable office than a peer. Examples of how companies measure power include:

  • How many people report to one manager
  • Prime location in the office
  • Company-paid country club membership
  • Amount of budget control
  • High-profile project assignments
  • Control of the most profitable customers
  • Better benefits
  • The most powerful computer hardware or system
  • Performance bonuses
  • Higher degree of acceptance by senior management for failures

Learn from the past. Look at your organization’s “unofficial” history. For instance, if there’s a story about a senior manager who was allegedly demoted after an incident regarding sexual harassment of a secretary, this tells you that your organization protects senior management, even against charges that would normally result in dismissal. Or it might mean that this particular manager had some information that allowed him to survive the incident. Checking out how your organization handled similar complaints can help you reach strong conclusions.

Start with your boss. Particularly if advancement within the organization is an important priority for you, learn how to make your boss look good. Identify ways you can add more value to the team by answering the following questions:

  • Do you work in a department that adds profitability to the organization?
  • Can you numerically measure the results of your and your team’s work?
  • Is your boss a team player?
  • Does s/he have the power to make decisions that affect your goals?
  • How is your boss perceived within the organization?

People who help their bosses be successful will usually ride those coattails to success!

If, your CEO is a Gen X'er, the above may be quite different.

Ignore the Grapevine at Your Own Peril

The office grapevine plays a key role in office politics and power plays. Don’t ignore (or believe everything you hear from) it. Today’s younger managers (probably Gen X'ers) don’t pay as much attention to the grapevine as older managers (probably Boomers) do because they don’t plan on staying with the company all that long. They also see themselves as more independent thinkers. Regardless of your generational label, it's been my experience that the office grapevine has an uncanny way of being accurate more often than not. A sort of “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” thing. So I would coach you to keep your ear to the ground.

Even though it gets a lot of bad press, the office grapevine can be a powerful career aid, providing you with lots of useful information that may be true! (After all, it does have biblical and historic roots and was immortalized in song by Marvin Gaye.)

If you think of the grapevine as merely a "gossip mill", try looking at it this way:

  • Grapevine information isn't necessarily just personal. In fact, probably 80% of it is business-related office politics.

  • The grapevine may contain an intentional leak - by senior management - of information you need to know.

  • If you convey a "superior attitude" about the grapevine, you could be cutting off a valuable source of information that you should be cultivating as a career resource instead.

Use it to your advantage!

  • Determine who has access to relevant sources of information and buy those people a latte.

  • Trade information when required, but don't provide grist for the rumor mill that could come back to haunt you.

  • Know the difference between the rumor mill and the grapevine. Don't fan rumor mill flames with your opinion.

You Don’t Have to Play Politics and Power Games
To Be Powerful

When Susan Kropf was named president and COO for Avon, the Wall Street Journal asked her at a press conference how she’d survived office politics. Her response was: “I have never really been involved in office politics that much. I try to keep egos out of things and stay focused on doing the best job I can. I’m direct with people, and let them know that I don’t have any hidden agenda. When you demonstrate that, other people play back to you in the same way”.

Your Involvement in Office Politics
And Power Games
Is Up to You

In its simplest terms, being good at office politics means learning how to turn individual agendas into common goals. It’s about interacting with people and influencing them to get things done.

Take a look at the people with power and decide if you want to be like them. Would you have to sacrifice any of your core values? If your answer is “yes”, then you probably will find more satisfaction in becoming influential – making the most significant contributions in your particular area – without all the trappings of power.

If your answer is “no”, then the extent of your involvement in office politics depends on your career goals and ambitions. Have a chat with a real power player. Ask them how they got there and let them know you “want to be just like them when you grow up”. They will be flattered and more than willing to share the stories of their rise to power with you.

However, I would coach you to appear politically savvy, or you may appear as:

  • Lacking a career management skill
  • Being unpromotable
  • Being a loner rather than a team player
  • Distrusting of confidences and/or critical information

    If you need to appear more savvy about office politics and power games, try:

    • Watching your peers, direct reports and superiors. Who eats with whom? Works out together? Commutes together?

    • Reading the body language of your peers as names and assignments are announced.

    • Listening to conversations in lunchrooms, washrooms and at clients' offices.

    Final Thoughts on Office Politics and Power Games

    There’s no doubt that office politics and power games are here to stay. The bigger and more established the organization, the more obvious they will be. In fact, U.S. executives currently say they waste about 20% of their time (that’s one day a week) dealing with internal conflicts, rivalry disputes and other volatile situations at work. (This according to a survey by Office Team, a California-based staffing service.)

    Sure it’s a real ego trip to be invited by the CEO to ride with him or her on the corporate jet to an important meeting, but it can come at a price.

    Are you willing to pay it? Your call!