With Office Politics, It’s Smart to Be Savvy

By Donna Cardillo, RN, MA

The term “office politics” is often used in a negative way to refer to the backbiting and undercutting that occur in the workplace. In the broader sense, office politics refers to the many unwritten rules of the workplace that involve getting along with others, getting noticed and appreciated, and following the protocol of “how it’s done here.”

Since we were young enough to remember, we were taught how to act in different situations. There were certain rules for home, for school, for church, and for public places. Unfortunately, many of us weren’t taught rules for the workplace. Therefore, many of us must fend for ourselves and learn the rules the hard way, often with dire consequences. Playing good office politics is not about “kissing up” or being phony. It’s about understanding the rules of the workplace and working within them for maximum personal benefit. Here are a few tips:

Avoid the troublemakers. Every workplace has individuals who love to put others down, bad-mouth the boss, criticize authority, and generally complain and whine. They’ll drag you down to their level and weave you into their web if you entertain their rantings and ravings. Don’t listen to them; don’t participate in their dialogue. If necessary, you might say, “I don’t feel the way you do about that.” And leave it at that.

Know — and follow — the chain of command. Become familiar with the organizational charts of your department and the company. Know whom you report to, whom your supervisor reports to, and where to go when you have a problem. Going “over someone’s head,” bypassing that person, can be career suicide. What if you have a problem with the person you report to? Unless there are serious issues that would require intervention by human resources, such as sexual harassment, try to resolve the situation with your boss directly. If that doesn’t work, then consider using your company’s grievance policy — but only as a last resort.

Be friendly, but cautious, with coworkers. It’s great to get friendly with those you work with, but coworkers often have their own agendas. Be cautious whom you confide in and reveal sensitive material to. You’d be wise to bite your tongue more often than not. Everyone will find things in a job that are troubling. And almost everyone would like to share them with others. But be cautious of those who seek out your troubles. Active seekers are active sharers.

I was once goaded by an overly friendly human resource director to come up with something I didn’t like about my boss. Although I initially resisted revealing anything, she eventually wore me down, and I confided I didn’t like the way he once handled a particular situation. She relayed that to my boss, and he called me into his office to discuss it. I learned this lesson the hard way.

Don’t gossip. Although it can be hard to resist, gossip erodes the bonds of trust and integrity in any organization. And if you listen to gossip, whether you contribute or not, you’re part of the problem. You’ll be labeled a gossip, too, just for associating with gossipers. Walk away if necessary.

Support your boss. Don’t speak negatively about your supervisor. Support her or him even if you don’t agree with the person. That’s part of being a team player. Certainly your actions or comments will be relayed to your boss anyway. Look for ways to solve problems and create solutions rather than criticize. Your relationship with your boss can make or break any work situation.

Socialize with your coworkers. Don’t be an outsider. We’re all busy, but socializing is an important part of building relationships — especially at work. Make an effort to get to holiday parties, award dinners, company picnics, and the occasional dinner after hours. It will give you the chance to get to know your coworkers better. You’ll also get to rub elbows with the higher-ups and be more visible. But be sure to dress and act professionally. You’re still at work.

Whether you work in a two-person office or a large corporation, the rules are the same. Become the master of your professional life: You’ll be happier and more successful when you develop political savvy and learn to work within the system to your best advantage.

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