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Don’t let others defeat you; learn to navigate office politics

Three, two, one — it’s Monday morning again! The weekend was too short, your list of chores was too long and your alarm is buzzing you out of delicious, deep-sleep oblivion, driving you into another workweek.
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Three, two, one — it’s Monday morning again! The weekend was too short, your list of chores was too long and your alarm is buzzing you out of delicious, deep-sleep oblivion, driving you into another workweek.

As you’re rushing out the door, are you excited or bummed? Do you feel like a kid getting ready to play ball with a bunch of friends or as if you’re dragging yourself to the dentist to have cavities filled? The attitudes we have about our jobs are often prompted by the people we labor with and whether our business environment is upbeat and open, downtrodden and clouded with adversity or a mix of the two.

Take this people thought and layer on another “p” word — politics. How much you enjoy your occupation is likewise heavily influenced by the politics swirling around you. When you’re part of a great people environment, it’s a pleasure to go to work. When you’re not, each day can be drudgery.

With the above in mind, are you living the dream or living in fear? If the people and politics are painful or make you feel vulnerable and afraid, you can change jobs. If, on the other hand, you are fitting in nicely with most of your cohorts but there are a few rough spots, you may need to become adept at dealing with office scheming.

Not interested? That’s OK. You need to be, anyway. Even if you don’t want to be the CEO, understanding workplace maneuvers can help you steer through rough waters, contribute to your sanity and enable your success. Let’s talk about major skills that enable or expand your political dexterity. Remembering these five talents is easy. Think A, B, C, D, E — ask, build, control, develop, emphasize.

A: Ask questions to gain an understanding of others’ political intent. Ever have a colleague attack or discredit your efforts? How did you react? The best reply is to defend yourself, right? Wrong. It may be an automatic response but it is not the best one. The preferred option is to ask questions about what may have caused the attack.

Be inquisitive. Redirect your energy toward understanding politics in play and what is motivating the other person’s behavior. Manipulation among professionals is based in fear, greed and power. Is the attacker afraid of losing control, looking bad in front of others or exposing insecurities? Asking questions helps you understand what prompted their fear, how you can neutralize it and become friends.

Tip: Your inquisitive manner makes it easier for you to understand others, which is more important than them understanding you.

B: Build relationships that help you influence outcomes. As you move through political mazes, make an effort to network and find friends. Build relationships and allies while avoiding taking sides. Be assertive and confident while respecting others and establishing a platform for your integrity.

This means gossiping is a no-no. Don’t get sucked into spreading rumors or unconstructive commentary. Once relationships start to take shape and you build trust with others, you’ll have the foundation for resolving conflict, influencing outcomes and collaboratively laboring toward common objectives.

Tip: Building relationships across groups also helps you take on challenges and get more done faster.

C: Control your emotions. When another person confronts you at work, the moment is often politically and emotionally charged. Like a flash of lightning, your emotions kick in, as well — anger, hurt and frustration converge into the urge to give the other person a well-deserved verbal wallop.

Thinking about lashing out? Don’t. You’ll regret it. Keep your credibility and character intact by keeping your emotions in check. This reduces the opportunity for others to use your behavior against you. Another bonus for controlling your feelings is it enhances your persona as a mature individual with leadership qualities.

Tip: Control your emotions to better navigate political moments, gain control and defuse stressful situations.

D: Develop a strong listening aptitude. Listening judiciously to others yields amazing insights. Conversely, are your comments getting you into trouble and stirring up the political pot? Did you and your mouth inadvertently step into a pile of political goo? Your words unwittingly flowed like a faucet, filling a vessel already overflowing with opinions about who’s dumb, who’s smart and who likes whom.

Listen more; talk less. Listening in earnest provides you with an opportunity to observe, learn the lay of the land and let others expose their thoughts, and it limits the likelihood that you’ll say something you’ll later lament. Slow down, take a deep breath — particularly when you’re in an elevated happy mood or a deflated, gloomy state — catch the current political climate by concentrating on listening and avoid sharing more than you should.

Tip: Listening helps you learn and think through political ploys.

E: Emphasize common goals. Politics in organizations may pull you into situations saturated with controversy and evolve into power struggles. Emphasis on objectives becomes distracted and work effort is diverted to efforts to control others. Attention is hijacked into dealing with who’s in control, insecure or afraid of losing power and influence.

Offset the ugly by emphasizing shared positives. Instead of getting into a power struggle with others, focus on common goals for making the company successful and coming out ahead of the competition. Make it a point to direct teammates toward embracing what you mutually want to accomplish as a group.

Tip: Emphasizing shared goals and win-win alternatives will help you rise above political noise.

Another view of company politics is explained through human needs. In a Harvard Business Review article titled “The Underlying Psychology of Office Politics” by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic (Dec. 25, 2014), psychologist Robert Hogan discusses the Darwinian view of workplace politics.

Hogan says the fundamentals underlying business relationships can be summarized in three evolutionary needs, or “master motives.” First, the need to get along — this encourages cooperation and enables group-living situations. Second, the need to get ahead — this prompts power struggles in the group among those more willing and able to be in charge, power being challenged and related internal competition. Third, the need to find meaning or purpose — this references combined knowledge, which provides a basis for comprehending the world, making large organizations essential for fulfilling the quest for meaning in life.

How Monday morning feels can be strongly affected by the political ecosystem you re-engage each week. Are you going to plot a course for managing office manipulating or are you sitting back waiting for people to push you in their preferred direction? Seriously? Are you leaving yourself vulnerable to the whims of others?

Wait, I’ll answer that. No, you’re not. You’re going to use the skills outlined above to improve your enterprise environment as you become a better co-worker in the process. Ask questions to understand others, build relationships, control emotions, develop listening aptitude and emphasize common goals to protect and promote your professional well-being.

Practice — yes, practice — these competencies every day. Take control of your ability to navigate office politics so office politics won’t have the option of controlling you.

Mary Elston has spent more than 20 years in management in the transportation, consulting and technology industries. She is a member of the National Speakers Association and author of the book, “Master Your Middle Management Universe, How to Succeed with Moga Moga Management Using 3 Easy Steps.” Contact her at

This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue.



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