Sunday, October 15, 2006

A fakers' guide to mastering office politics

Forget hard work. Playing the people game is often the fastest way to climb the greasy pole, writes Mary Braid

WHEN it comes to career progression, there is no shortage of advice about time management, presentation skills and sheer hard graft.

However, the single biggest factor determining how far we climb up the ladder, according to business psychologist Rob Yeung, is “other people”.

Yeung argues that however much we might want to deny it, the reality is that colleagues have a far greater impact on our careers than how hard we work or how talented we are.

“A lot of people like to think that their organisations are not political and that they can get on without being political. But the fact is that the most hard-working people do not make it to the top — it’s the politically savvy that get there,” he says.

“You have to learn to look at colleagues and consider what is driving their behaviour. You have to understand their professional and personal agendas.”

According to Yeung’s new book, The Rules of Office Politics, colleagues have never been trickier to deal with because of the pressures that organisational change, mergers, downsizing, outsourcing and globalisation have brought to both the private and public sectors.

These pressures have turned the workplace into “a minefield of treacherous personalities, unexploded resentments and ticking egos”, and understanding office politics and what makes colleagues tick has never been more important.

The trick, Yeung suggests, is to discover what colleagues’ “little hot buttons are” and then press them.

He offers a host of tips for handling other people, and claims colleagues can be divided into four types — bigwigs, rising stars, no-hopers and has-beens — depending on their level of influence and seniority in an organisation. He suggests the ambitious should cultivate relationships with influential bigwigs and rising stars, but waste no time on no-hopers and has-beens.

Understanding the political landscape of an organisation is crucial, he says, and when gathering intelligence — about who likes or hates who, who is on the up or on the skids and so on — Yeung recommends that the ambitious work on showing a genuine interest in people. He also suggests they encourage colleagues to divulge their innermost thoughts, particularly when their guards are down — when workmates are drunk, tired or emotional.

Yeung believes that attentiveness is the way to becoming a targeted colleague’s best friend. He even offers tips on how to fake it.

“You probably aren’t really interested in their diet/new curtains/recent yoga retreat/groin operation,” said Yeung. “But if you aren’t interested, at least pretend by using ‘active listening’ cues. Lift your eyebrows and ‘flash’ your eyes occasionally to signify that you understand what is being said. Nod intermittently to encourage them to continue ... use verbal cues such as ‘uh-huh’, ‘mmm’ and ‘yes’ to reassure them you are hanging on their every word.”

For those who might recognise the dog-eat-dog workplace that Yeung describes but feel a touch queasy about blatant politicking, Yeung says he is offering advice about how to succeed in the real, not the ideal, world. And he does not think that the public sector is any less dominated by office politics than the private.

“Public-sector organisations can actually be even more political,” says Yeung. “In the private sector there are clearer measures of performance. In the public sector, the lack of clarity in performance measures creates more tensions, and decisions are seen as political more often. I’ve found the public sector as much of a political minefield as the private.”

For those who do not recognise the world he describes, Yeung says “wake up and smell the coffee”. Bosses, he says, always have favourites, organisations do not care about employees and the only person with responsibility for your career is you, so put your own interests first.

Yeung says his book is a manual for dealing with reality. “I’m not saying that the rules of office politics are right or wrong,” he says. “I’m just saying that’s the way the world is. The political game doesn’t disappear just because you refuse to play it.

“I’m saying bitching, sniping and complaining about other people is not productive and that people should instead observe colleagues’ behaviour and do something about it.”

Isn’t it bleak, though, to suggest that the only way to get to the top is to accept the rules as they are and play by them? Without challenging the existing culture, how will workplaces ever change? And doesn’t acceptance of the existing rules allow organisations to escape their obligation to create fairer workplaces where what you know might come to matter more than who you know? In his book, Yeung admits to instances where he put his own career before principle. He talks of two former bosses — Alistair and Sean — and how he adapted to suit their “styles” even though those were objectionable. Alistair swore a lot and so when he was with him, Yeung would swear more too. Sean had a fixation with women’s breasts, so Yeung says a breast joke never went amiss when Sean was around. “The key to office politics is that people like people much like themselves,” says Yeung.

So how does Yeung personally square the reality of the workplace and his own career now? Interestingly, he chooses to work for himself.

“The reason I run my own business is because I no longer want to play the political game,” he says.

It seems ironic that the author who advocates the ambitious play by the rules rather than try to change them has himself walked away from the office..

  • Accept the reality and power of office politics.
  • Get to know the bigwigs and rising stars.
  • Don’t waste time on no-hopers and has-beens.
  • Cultivating influential people matters more than working hard.
  • Think strategically and understand the office undercurrents by becoming a confidant. Even when you are bored by colleagues’ stories, fake attentiveness.

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