Political Navigation in the Workplace

by Sheila Mulholland
August 09, 2023
Political Navigation in the Workplace

“When organizations institute positive, virtuous practices they achieve significantly higher levels of organizational effectiveness — including financial performance, customer satisfaction, and productivity.” – Kim Cameron, William Russell Kelly Professor of Management and Organizations; Ross School of Business, University of Michigan 

Despite almost everyone you ask swearing they hate them, office politics have become synonymous with work. From Mad Men’s dramatic Madison Avenue ad firm Sterling Cooper Pryce to the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company of The Office fame, to Grey-Sloan Memorial Hospital (Grey’s Anatomy), fiction reflects what many of us already suspect: Very political workplaces are everywhere, inescapable no matter your title or job description. As much as you might want to run away and avoid the topic entirely, sidestepping office politics is borderline impossible. However, you don’t have to “play the game” by backstabbing and conniving; you can and should do it positively. If you’re successful, you can discover the opportunities concealed within a highly political workplace, and so turn the tides in your favor.  


Manage Your Expectations 

One of the easiest ways to reduce your anxiety centered around workplace politics is to face facts and align your expectations with reality. If you are still expecting that the “ostrich approach” will work, know that burying your head in the metaphorical sand not only won’t make the issue disappear but being blind to what’s going on around you can and may hurt you. “The question,” as well-known authors Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal elaborate in their foundational text, Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, “is not whether organizations will have politics but rather what kind of politics they will have.” 

You probably won’t be able to find a work environment that’s entirely devoid of politics, and there’s no sense in pretending you might. But you can select other factors that play into the type of workplace politics and relationship management you’ll encounter at your workplace, like communication and collaboration styles, organizational structure, and more. That will let you find an organization with politics that are in alignment with how you like to operate and will play to your strengths.  

There’s another opportunity here, too. As David Frankel, managing partner for consultant firm Slingstone Group, identifies: “Everyone comes to the table with their own personal goals, egos, aspirations, and agendas, and in order for someone to get what they want, there is always going to be some level of compromise, negotiation, and politicking.” Just as your coworkers and leadership have their own agendas, it’s understood and almost expected that you might have your own — and with compromise as the operative word, those who show up mentally prepared to “play the game” hold a considerable advantage.

[RELATED: DevOps Decoded: Unleash the Power of Collaboration.] 


Cultivate a Positive Presence 

Whenever possible, try to operate from a place of positivity and optimism, not from a place of pessimism. The benefits of accentuating the positive like this are fairly well-known: People are drawn to positivity, and many naturally seek the company of people who have a positive outlook.  

You can, and should, engage in office politics by operating from this place of positivity. Since the very phrase “office politics” conjures certain images in our minds — backstabbing, cliques, rumors, and more — it can be hard at first to conceptualize what positive participation looks like. Here are some quick ideas to get you started thinking about ways you can spread a little more good energy around at work:  

  • Remain professional at all times. 
  • Understand that “winning” and “losing” on an individual level is less important than finding solutions that work for everyone. 
  • Proactively network with other positive-minded individuals whenever possible. 
  • Keep concerns and critiques assertive, but not aggressive. 
  • Don’t gossip (more about this one shortly!). 


Listen Actively

Active listening is considered one of the most important soft skills for very good reasons, and everyone who wants to have a successful career working as part of a top-notch team needs to develop it, full stop. When we listen actively, our conversational partner/s receives our full focus, and it is understood that we are considering their statements respectfully (although we don’t necessarily have to accept or agree with what’s being said, which is an important distinction). Nonverbal cues like body language help provide more cues about how the other person feels. This holistic perspective makes active listening one of the best ways to foster a better sense of connection and empathy, at work and throughout our lives.  

Despite these well-documented benefits of practicing active listening, not every leader is an active listening pro. Does it matter? When one out of every ten employees recently surveyed by workplace culture experts Emtrain responded that they have no trust that leadership will listen to employee complaints, it sure does; employees who don’t feel listened to or supported will disengage and eventually depart. Active listening is the simplest way for leaders to show the workforce they are engaged – and once you’re “tuned in” to how people really feel, you’ll be able to navigate the thorniest workplace matters with relative ease.  


[RELATED: Setting Professional Boundaries to Stay Successful.] 


Don’t Feed the Rumor Mill!   

Humans are a highly social species, and while it’s amazing and exhilarating to find moments of authentic connection in the workplace, make sure those moments aren’t manufactured at someone else’s expense. Gossiping is one of humanity’s oldest social skills, and it’s a double-edged sword, especially at work. In general, negative gossip tends to happen about someone else, but behind their back or otherwise out of earshot… and you know it’s wrong when you do engage in it. Leave the cliques and negative gossip in seventh grade where they belong; those practices don’t help adults get real work done.

However, it’s important to note that not all workplace gossip falls into the negative category; per research compiled by the savvy team at TestGorilla, “gossip of all types promotes social cohesion, but while positive gossip can create a sense of solidarity, negative gossip and secrecy allow cliques and divisiveness to form.” 

Positive or pro-social gossip seeks to benefit the group as a whole; examples include highlighting co-worker or team wins, sharing positive observations, and even alerting the group to the presence of a negative or risk-inducing element. Mastering the art of positive gossip naturally strengthens your network and helps incentivize satisfying collective victories.

Now that you know some constructive ways to play the workplace politics game without feeling like a Targaryen, hopefully, you’re feeling more confident and hopeful about the prospect. Remember, you can only control your own actions — but as long as you’re operating from a place of positivity that’s informed by reality, listening actively to your coworkers and team, and avoiding negative gossip, you can overcome the most challenging of circumstances. Once you see how easy it is to incorporate these new skills into your daily routine, you’ll have no trouble with political navigation at your workplace 

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