How to Win at Office Politics

There's no escaping office politics, so learn how to cultivate your power and use it wisely.

By Tamara Lytle Jul 1, 2016
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​Sue Haywood was caught off guard when the CEO at a former employer came to her excited about a proposal to streamline operations. She learned that the plan, which involved adjusting employees' hours, had been formulated by a division head who hadn't consulted with HR and didn't understand how his idea would affect workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement. 

As director of employee relations, Haywood knew the initiative could seriously undermine the company's relationship with its union workforce. At the same time, she didn't want to jeopardize her own relationship with the executive who had devised the proposal.   

"I told the CEO that I had some concerns, that I would talk to the division leader and get back to him," she recalls.

Haywood spoke privately to the executive who had hatched the idea. She calmly voiced her reservations while assuring him she would work with him to find another solution. He agreed to sideline the plan. 

“HR leaders have to support everyone in the organization and try to understand where people are coming from, even if they don’t agree with their actions,” says Haywood, now managing director of HR Blueprints Ltd. in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. “Most people don’t do things because they are bad people.” 

Haywood’s diplomacy earned her added respect from senior leaders and enhanced her stature as a key advisor within the organization. 

Her experience shows that honing political savvy can help HR professionals advance their careers and elevate their departments—and that doing so doesn’t have to mean compromising their integrity.

Whether playing out in this year’s brutal presidential campaigns or in the confines of a conference room near you, politics often carry a negative connotation. People tend to associate the political arena with name-calling, backstabbing and petty power struggles.

Despite these perceptions, the existence of workplace politics is not something HR professionals should ignore, says Marjorie Brody, head of Brody Professional Development, a leadership development and coaching company in Jenkintown, Pa.

“When you get more than two people in a room, there’s going to be politics,” she notes. “Why fight something that’s going to exist all the time?” 

Indeed, workers who complain about office politics without ever promoting their own interests are just like citizens who criticize their elected officials but never bother to vote, Brody says.

At the end of the day, office politics is really just people exerting their power and influence, says Franke James, a business coach who authored Dear Office-Politics (BookSurge, 2009) and created a game with the same name. “If you pretend not to see it, you’ll be blindsided,” she says. “You have to keep your eyes open and read between the lines.”

Perhaps more than any other department, HR finds itself in the middle of internal political debates. “On the one hand, you have to protect the interests of the employees,” says Tony Zamora, HR director for North America at market research firm Ipsos. “On the other, you have to protect the interests and growth of the company.” 

According to Zamora, some of the partisan polarization that has characterized national politics has rubbed off in the workplace as well. “People talk to one side or the other and don’t look down the middle,” he says. 

And as HR professionals take on more-prominent leadership roles in companies, political savvy has become a critical competency, says Michelle Melito, SHRM-CP, HR manager at accounting and tax advisory CohnReznick, headquartered in New York City.

In fact, HR is one of the most politically challenging roles in business, says Marie McIntyre, author of Secrets to Winning at Office Politics (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2005) and head of Your Office Coach in Atlanta. “It’s a constant juggling act,” says McIntyre, who worked as the HR director of a tech company for nine years. “To be a good HR person, you have to have a combination of professional expertise and emotional intelligence—and you have to understand power dynamics.”

Learning to Listen—and Talk

HR professionals who are new to their roles can avoid political missteps by getting a firm grasp on their company’s culture before initiating change.

Jason Hite

“A lot of times people want to dive right into HR and don’t take the time to learn the organization,” says Jason Hite, SHRM-SCP, who witnessed many fierce internal battles as former CHRO in the U.S. House of Representatives Office of the Chief Administrative Officer. “Each organization has its own living history. Without that knowledge, we go into situations blind,” adds Hite, now vice president of human capital management at consulting firm Xcelerate Solutions in McLean, Va.

It’s also important to develop your ability to connect with others and listen to contrasting perspectives, both increasingly rare skills thanks to the fact that people today are so dependent on virtual interactions that they forget to form face-to-face bonds, Zamora says.

You might begin by simply talking to people, which is what Hite did. In Congress, he switched cafeterias regularly to interact with different individuals. He also scheduled formal lunches with peers and set aside time to leave his desk so he could build relationships with colleagues at various levels.

New HR leaders would do well to get to know people for three to six months before initiating any dramatic rollouts. Act too fast, and “it can completely blow up,” Zamora says.

Eventually, of course, you must jump into the fray to demonstrate your expertise and make the case for HR’s critical impact on the organization. “You can’t just sit and watch a game and figure you are going to add value,” Brody says.

Building Your Base

As you look to build a strong foundation of constituents, start analyzing the cliques already present in the organization to develop key alliances. “The people who you know are going to help you—they’re going to save you. And they’re going to teach you,” says Steve Prentice, founder of Bristall Group, a soft-skills training company in Toronto.

For any HR practitioner, but especially those who work with senior executives, it’s imperative to understand who holds power—and that’s not always tied to title.

Sorting out who the real power brokers are involves asking questions. “Who influenced a decision last time? Who speaks up in meetings? How are decisions made?” says Kathryn Heath, Ph.D., founding partner at Flynn Heath Holt Leadership in Charlotte, N.C.

Target people who are key players in your company and ask for 15 minutes of their time, Brody suggests. You might increase your chances of getting on their calendar by telling them you admire their ability to accomplish things. Serving on committees and teams outside of HR can help you build beneficial connections as well, she adds.

Understanding the balance of power is also critical to success. Heath once worked with an HR client in the financial services industry who wanted to introduce a bonus system. Before bringing it up at a meeting, the client drew a diagram of the key people involved in the decision and which ones he knew would support the idea. Then he went around to nonsupporters to hear their concerns and to show how he would address each one. By the time he pitched the proposal in a meeting, the client had already won the endorsement of all the stakeholders. His deliberately planned efforts led to the initiative’s approval.

To assess who wields informal power, try observing who speaks up for their colleagues and who others turn to for advice, Melito suggests. She cultivates networks of power players by supporting their interests and by honoring her commitments to them, such as her promise to carefully handle the confidential information that comes into HR.

Also, try to find “sponsors”—people willing to expend political capital to help you. Many people have mentors, Heath says, but few seek out sponsors. To build productive partnerships, make sure the relationship is a two-way street by finding ways to help others and showing them that you are reliable.

Just like in traditional politics, it’s beneficial to work behind the scenes. Attending nonwork activities such as office social events can boost your political ranking. “People like to work with people they like,” James says. “It’s in your best interest to be part of the culture.”

Gender and Cultural Politics

Women sometimes approach office politics with less enthusiasm than men, Heath says. Many executives tell her that when they join a new company, people line up outside their office the first day to ask for something and promote themselves—and it’s almost all men.

It might be because women are often not socialized to speak up on their own behalf. Often, the same woman who has no qualms about lobbying relentlessly to make sure her child has the best teacher, for example, won’t ask for a well-deserved promotion, Heath notes.


 

In the long run, becoming adept at playing office politics is better than trying to avoid potential confrontations.


 

“They believe [work] is a meritocracy,” Heath says. But she doesn’t see it that way: “The higher you get, the less a meritocracy it is.”

Struggles with office politics are often different for men and women, McIntyre says. Men tend to want to exert their dominance, while women are more prone to seek harmony in group interactions. (Both approaches can put pressure on managers, who often find themselves in the middle of conflicts, according to McIntyre.)

As companies become more global and the workplace more diverse, cultural differences can also cause political problems. For example, Zamora works for a French company where employees tend to work long hours except when they take a protracted August holiday. He had to help company leaders understand that U.S. workers were accustomed to scheduling time off throughout the year instead of taking one lengthy break. He used his platform as an HR leader to convince company leaders that flextime and days off could be powerful recruiting tools.

Down and Dirty

Even dirty politics can be useful in some instances.

Take gossip, for example. If the office chatter indicates that someone is in trouble at work, it might prompt co-workers to show their concern and encourage the offender to change his or her behavior, says Matthew Feinberg, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and co-author of research reported in the journal Psychological Science, “Gossip and Ostracism Promote Cooperation in Groups.”

And when the gossip involves behavior that is immoral or incompetent, it can help reinforce what not to do, Feinberg says.

Of course, HR professionals must be careful when it comes to workplace gossip. While you don’t want to bury your head in the sand, it’s probably best to refrain from treading on the rumor mill if you want to protect your integrity. Otherwise, “it looks like the decisions you’ve made aren’t as objective as possible,” Hite says.

Yet retaining your humanity is critical as well. Sometimes HR professionals are so focused on processes and programs that they forget to consider the emotional terrain that motivates people. “You want to get those emotional cues before you run into the fire,” Hite says.

Sue Haywood

 

Take the case of the pharmaceutical company employee Prentice worked with who had recently been promoted to lead an HR team and suddenly found herself drowning in a sea of jealousy because she had played smart politics. Or the HR specialist at a chemical company Prentice recalls who couldn’t understand the emotions involved with a group of friends when one of them suddenly became the boss of his former buddies.

In both cases, having a firm grasp of the personalities in the mix, as well as reflecting on basic human nature, could have helped to defuse the situation. For example, is it really so surprising that an abrupt change in power among a tight-knit group of friends would lead to friction?

Even if some colleagues are bullies, manipulators or just downright mean, that makes understanding them even more crucial. Fear can cause you to lash out, so remain composed and strive to understand where someone is coming from. “It’s the art of war—understand your adversary,” Prentice says. When handling strained relations, always make your first goal to build a bridge, he adds. If that doesn’t work, “build a detour.”

In a previous job at a hospital system, Melito worked alongside an HR leader who believed she was always right and regularly berated staff who disagreed with her. Melito didn’t trust this colleague or value her opinion, but she couldn’t ignore the situation because she saw lower-level staff hesitating to bring up issues for fear of setting off the tyrant. She and another manager knew the fallout would be unpleasant, but they made the problem known to senior leaders. “You recognize you’re putting yourself at risk,” she says. “But you have to know your own values, and you have to know who’s depending on you.”

After the situation was addressed, the disagreeable colleague was angry that Melito had gone over her head. But Melito’s boss told her she had handled the situation correctly.

HR leaders who work in organizations that are constantly mired in harmful political drama should look at the underlying causes, which are usually poor communication and an excess of fear, says Liz Ryan, founder and CEO of Human Workplace in Boulder, Colo. “It’s HR’s job to root out the causes in order to keep the business healthy,” she says.

When politics turn toxic, it may be time to leave the company, James says.

But remember that wherever you go, politics will follow. “You can’t avoid the friction of people interacting,” Prentice says. In the long run, becoming adept at playing office politics is better than trying to avoid potential confrontations, he maintains.

Indeed, politics serve a practical purpose in our work lives. “It’s not negative. If you care about something, you work to influence it,” Heath says.

And don’t forget: When it comes to your career, it’s OK to vote for yourself.

Tamara Lytle is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area.


Photo illustration by Laura Bruce for HR Magazine

Relationship Management


This article relates to one of the nine competencies on which SHRM has based its certification.To learn more, visit www.shrmcertification.org.

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