How to Win at Office Politics

Like it or not, every workplace is a political environment. But operating effectively within it doesn’t have to mean sucking up, lying, or slinging dirt. In its purest form, office politics is simply about getting from here to there: securing a promotion, seeing an idea come to fruition, or gaining support to make an organizational change. Playing the game well is about defending your position, earning respect, exchanging favors, and keeping your sanity amid the chaos. To get started, you need to know what you really want from work, then orient your political moves toward those goals. It all starts with strong relationships and helping others; those people in return make up the support system that helps you realize your goals. Here’s how it’s done.

STEP - 1 >> Figure Out Why (and If) You Want to Play

Office politics gets a bad rap because the most obvious practitioners often do it for the wrong reasons: They enjoy the ego trip, or they like to compete for the sake of competition. But the people who quietly succeed at work are also political operators — they just do it better. Those who play the game well map out their career or workplace priorities and align their politicking to those goals. “Political moves are the navigation through your career — not the driver,” says Susan DePhillips, former vice president of human resources for Ross Stores.
Start by writing down your top five career goals and priorities. These could include switching departments, making more money, unloading some of your responsibilities, or becoming the go-to person for your area of expertise. Then write down the five things you’ve spent the most time and worry on during the last six months. Do they match up? If not, you may be caught up in your colleagues’ goals instead of your own.
Next, prioritize your goals. Maybe you’re seeking a promotion, but you recently had a child and want to start leaving the office earlier. It’s not that you can’t have both, but you’re not likely to get them at the same time since new positions usually entail more responsibility and a learning curve. Decide which matters most to you right now, and start thinking about who you’ll need to persuade or influence in order to get it.


It’s tempting to think that the best way to get ahead is to buckle down and work extra hard. You’ll be recognized and rewarded for the effort, right? Don’t count on it. You can’t expect other people to magically know what you want in return. Be clear on your goals, and don’t feel shy about going after them.

If: You want a promotion...

Then: Find out how to get one.
Ask your boss what she wants from you and what skills you need to demonstrate to get promoted. Document the conversation in a follow-up email, then master those tasks and skills. This puts you in a better spot to open the conversation again — and get the promotion.

If: You want buy-in from another department when you propose an idea...

Then: Ask for support.
Ask your counterpart in that department when and how he would first like to hear about new ideas: Over coffee? In an email? As soon as they come up? Once they’ve gained approval in your department? See if he wants to be included in related meetings. Involving him earlier will increase your chances of gaining support.

If: Someone’s blocking you from your goal...

Then: Stand up to them — nicely.
Dan Coughlin, a management consultant whose clients have included Toyota, McDonald’s, and Coca-Cola, remembers a regional operations head who was frustrated because her boss finished all her sentences in group settings. “He was stepping in to make sure she succeeded,” Coughlin says, “but in doing so he wasn’t giving her enough room to operate.” The woman confronted her boss privately, and he backed off. With her increased autonomy, she gained the support of the managers in her region, and her boss recommended her for a promotion shortly thereafter.

STEP - 3 >> Create Strong Relationships

Successful politics starts with relationships: You’ll need your coworkers’ support — or at minimum their respect — to accomplish anything. Your colleagues all have their own information and allegiances that they can put to work for you — if, and only if, they’re so inclined. “Relationships are built on reciprocity,” says management psychologist Karissa Thacker.

“If you do someone a favor, 90 percent of people return the favor.” Likewise, if you exclude someone or block their progress, you’ll get similar treatment in response.
In seeking allies, don’t just look upward. Coworkers below and equal to your position often have the power to support — or thwart — your goals. Admins may know tricks about how and when to approach the boss with a request. And your direct report in marketing could move to the accounting department and nix your spending budget next year.

The political payoff for forging these relationships may take months or years, but the effort doesn’t need to take much time from your day. Here are a few alliance-building techniques:
Listen without interrupting. Hear your coworker out, particularly when the topic is important to him. It shows respect for his beliefs and opinions. And it gives you time to formulate a clear response if he’s asking you an important question or disagreeing with you.

Acknowledge a colleague’s point of view, even if you disagree. Again, you’re showing respect, and by doing so you can be more persuasive of your differing point of view. If you dismiss her position outright, she might interpret that as you dismissing her, which builds animosity and makes you look arrogant.

Offer a favor when you have expertise to share. When offering favors, look for opportunities where you truly have value to add — rather than focusing on what you’ll get in return. For example, if you’ve been at your company for a few years, help a new hire by clueing them in on how much the CEO hates long emails.

Ask questions. It will spark conversation and help you connect, says Glenn Renner, chief operating officer of HomeSphere, which makes construction-management software. Visit a coworker’s office and ask what he’s working on or why the company does something a certain way. “By seeking to understand, you’ll develop a friend,” says Renner, who spent 17 years moving up the ranks at Sherwin-Williams. Plus, you may learn something that benefits your own goals.
Don’t overdo it. The line between a strong professional relationship and a friendship is a blurry one. “Employee” is your primary role, Thacker notes, so keep relationships “business personal.” Share only the personal information you’re willing to accept as part of your professional reputation. For example: “My kid has to have surgery” is OK to share, but “I’m on medication for depression” is risky.

Beware flying solo. If you never collaborate or delegate, coworkers may see you as a ball hog. Your chances of scoring are better with teammates. More importantly, excluding people may get you excluded from opportunities down the road.


Though it’s considered politically incorrect to acknowledge gender differences, it’s true that women and men generally handle conflict and leadership differently. Susan DePhillips, author of “Corporate Confidential: What It Really Takes to Get to the Top,” shares some ways to bridge the divide:


Two men can get into a heated argument during a meeting, then be reliving highlights of last night’s hockey game at lunch an hour later. A woman in the same argument might be too upset to eat lunch at all.

If you’re the guy: Tell an upset female coworker you understand her point of view and acknowledge what’s good about it. For many women, it’s as important to be understood and respected as it is to win a debate. “A woman is only going to get pissed if she’s getting dismissed or shut down,”
DePhillips says.

If you’re the gal: Remind yourself this guy is probably not attacking you personally. Even if you’re exploding on the inside, focus the conversation on the facts of the work problem and make your points as succinctly as possible.

Women tend to be more willing to collaborate than men. They can also stretch a meeting or a project by straying from the subject and discussing things in minute detail. Men tend to be more process-oriented, looking to take the fewest steps to reach an outcome.

If you’re the guy: You may not like to collaborate, but in some cases you’ll have to get over that. Women derive a lot of satisfaction from sharing ideas and relating with colleagues — in part because they want to make sure what they’re doing is right. “Allow other people their own thought process until it becomes counterproductive,” DePhillips suggests. At that point you might say: “I hear what you’re saying and I think that’s important, but let’s move on to the other items we need to accomplish.”

If you’re the gal: When you’re asked to recommend a course of action on a project, don’t come into a meeting with several possible approaches for everyone’s review. Step up and make a decision. If you’re not confident in one recommendation, run your ideas by a coworker ahead of time. If you need participation on a team project from a guy who prefers to work alone, give him actionable steps or break the project into pieces, so he can do his part on his own, his way.
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