Office Politics: How To Deal With Office Politics

How To Deal With Office Politics

Let me ask you something…

If somebody asks you the simple question “What Do You Do?”, how do you answer them?

You tell them what you do as a job, right?

(well, most people do).

That’s because most of us define ourselves by what we do for a living – and seek to define others by the same measure. So it stands to reason that we deserve to be happy in what we do, particularly as this makes up a large portion of our life in the hours we have as well as in our psyche (read this article if you want to explore that idea further: Work Is Half Your Life – So Enjoy It!!).

But what if you’re not happy in your workplace? What if you can’t enjoy it?

Most of us at some stage will have dealt with times at work when it’s difficult – whether through gossip, bitching, backstabbing, favoritism, betrayal of trust… the list goes on but all of these can fall under the general theme of ‘office politics’ and you’d be very fortunate if this is something you’ve never experienced.

So how do we deal with such office politics?

One of our readers, Adrienne, requested an article about this – i.e. when there’s a situation at work where co-workers were speaking about other co-workers and tension is created in the workplace – how do we deal with that? So that’s what we’ll try to address here – in Adrienne’s words, an article about “dealing with office politics and trying to let go of unpleasant people in one`s workplace”.

Context – Sometimes It’s Not Politics At All

There are of course some occasions where tensions exist in the workplace and it’s not ‘politics’ at all. It could be construed as such but this is something worth checking up front before getting too concerned about it. If everyone is stressed due to a particularly difficult time, then allowances should be made.

When new teams are formed, for example, a perfectly natural progression for this team to go through is the ‘storming’ phase of team development, which again, isn’t really politics, it’s just the nature of the way teams develop and tensions in this particular phase can be managed best just by understanding what’s happening and perhaps putting in place better communication to deal with the facts and clear roles and responsibilities.

Other examples where allowances should be made are things like where layoffs are happening or firms are going through takeovers or mergers. If people are highly concerned about their job security, then sure, you could call it politics but I think in this case too some allowances should be made and the interpretation of events and behaviors should come from a position of understanding first and foremost.

So it’s worth checking the context of the ‘office politics’ first.

Dealing With Office Politics – The Problem Is In Two Places

The first part of Adrienne’s specific question I’d like to frame by looking at where the ‘problem’ is, before looking at what we do about it.

In brief, the problem is in two places. These two places are as follows:

  • ‘Out there
  • In our own heads

… or external and internal if you like. Clearly of these two the place we can do the most with is the second, so we’ll look at that first. The first place, ‘out there’ – what everyone else is saying and doing, the external environment, where the gossip, the backstabbing, the bitching or whatever it is happening – deserves some consideration as well but only a little, because that’s the place where it’s wrong to jump in, where it’s wrong to spend too much of our time. All we really want to do with that place is to change our perspective of it (which relates directly to the second part of Adrienne’s question and which we’ll get back to).

Our Biggest Influence

Our biggest influence is within ourselves, and this is the part to get right before doing anything else.

If we can get square, confident and comfortable with our own reading of events, objectively, rationally and ideally removing emotion (at least any negative emotions which are unhelpful) entirely from the equation then we become extremely empowered – and there are several ways to do that.

Only from this objective place can we decide rationally what the right course of action is for any given (office politics) situation. Unfortunately as this is a huge topic, there is no one right answer for which decisions and action to take as some office politics will warrant attention and some will warrant no attention at all.

In some situations, the right thing to do is to tackle a problem head on, to nip it in the bud. In others, giving more attention to a problem will actually give some of the mis-perceptions credence and make the situation worse. In some cases it’s a genuine conflict and in others it’s just mis-understanding. Even conflict resolution has different approaches and we’ll have a separate article on that shortly (probably immediately following this one).

So it is up to you, with your understanding of your own situation to judge what the best course of action is but the first and most important point is to do so objectively and rationally.

Managing Our Reactions

One tip to help to reach that state of calm is to avoid immediate reactions and take time to assess the situation for what it really is before deciding what to do next. If you are angry with the person or people right in front of you, in the heat of the moment, it may actually be better to recognize that, excuse yourself to get some space and clarity rather than try to deal with the situation there and then if you’re not feeling very rational. Again, you know yourself and your situation better than I do.

Also with emails, it’s almost always a good idea to take some time to digest and think about a communication that has provoked a defensive or angry response in you than to fire off an immediate response. If you are worried about losing parts of what you want to say in response then by all means write an immediate response, but just don’t send it – save it as a draft and come back to it later. You’ll be surprised by what you think when you read back over what you would have written. The written word can also often sound much more harsh and cause longer term negative feelings/have a longer term impact. To avoid mistakes, don’t put any names in the To:, cc: or bcc: fields until you are really ready to send the mail, and be careful who you do put in each field.

Our Thoughts Shape Our Reality

Just to labor this point a little further, the reason it’s important to get our mindset right is because our thoughts shape our reality. That is as true for the instigators of the office politics as it is for any bystanders or observers as well as any people directly impacted by events.

This also means that one person’s interpretation of events may be completely different to another’s. Two people observing the same situation could have such different world views that one genuinely sees it as something positive and another as something negative. Literally someone could be interpreting something as malicious with hurt or damage intended whilst the person supposedly causing that damage sees no harm in what they’ve done whatsoever and perhaps even the contrary.

What if we really are a victim – if our anger, defensiveness or hurt is justified?

Not to get too philosophical about it (because the above statement is very subjective and there are perspectives we can employ even about that) – here’s the deal:

Our thoughts shape our reality.

That means, that even if the situation is unfair, even if things are terrible, we can make them a whole lot worse for ourselves depending upon how we think about it.

The chances are that your thoughts about a particular situation if it’s office politics are making it worse.

As a brief aside but probably useful at this stage, check out the following two articles about Limiting Beliefs:

Limiting Beliefs: Are You Being Your Biggest Hurdle?
Limiting Beliefs II: How To Beat Self-Doubt

So the point here, is to turn anything negative (in terms of our thoughts) into something positive – and here we have two areas to address:

  • What we think about the situation (i.e. what we just talked about)
  • What we want to do about it

What Action To Take: What Should We Do About It?

So you may have guessed it, I’m going to say very little here.

Because there is very little to say.

I could give you 1000 answers for 1000 different situations, and you could present me with 1000 more that I didn’t cover.

No, really.

There will be an action you need to take though.

Make no mistake about it.

The right action to take is not something I can tell you here, but I can give you some pointers:

  • Don’t dwell on the past – we can’t change what’s in the past, we can only change what we do now and that is extremely powerful when you think about it – it gives us tremendous focus and helps with objectivity, which is exactly what we’re looking for
  • Nor the future – we shouldn’t think too far into the future about what might happen, but rather get back to what we can do right now and how that will affect the more immediate future – it’s easier, it’s more powerful and worst case if we get it wrong, it’s easier to correct by following the same principle again. Read this: Make Tiny Decisions
  • Stay objective – when deciding what action to take, we should do so calmly, rationally, and from a principle-led position, in line with our values and not from a place of hate (or even dislike), jealously, hurt, defensiveness or revenge – rise above all of that – you will feel all the better for it
  • Consider this – sometimes no reaction at all is the best reaction
  • Perception – perception is a very powerful thing – if the nature of the office politics you’re dealing with is affecting people’s perceptions, then think (again objectively) how best to correct this – head on, downplaying or avoiding the subject completely, indirectly through other colleagues/influencers, or by passively showing behaviors/actions which prove the opposite of that perception – again this is a huge topic but often the best way to change perception is to take a 360 degree view and do so with many small changes rather than anything drastic
  • Rapport – rapport is also an important consideration (which we haven’t covered too much here) – people are less likely to gossip and be ‘political’ about you if they have a bond with you – they are less likely to judge and say bad things about a person they spend a lot of face-to-face time with than someone they’ve never seen in person – just like someone is less likely to be deceitful whilst maintaining direct eye contact (just as a general point – sometimes this works the other way but mostly people are ‘loyal’ to colleagues they feel closer to)
  • Do more with less – when considering a reaction or action around a certain political situation, it can be very powerful to do more with less. Few words carefully chosen very often have a far greater impact than a more comprehensive reaction
  • Be politically savvy – a balance I always found useful to shoot for which didn’t compromise my own principles was to be politically savvy without being political.
Be politically savvy without being political.

How To Let Go Of Unpleasant People In One’s Workplace

So, on to the second part of Adrienne’s question.

This is more about what happened and whilst we don’t really want to jump in and get involved, we do want to alter our perception of it.

This is again about the fact that we all have our own view of the world.

What can I say, it’s an important concept – which is why it keeps cropping up.

This time, though, as I said above, it’s not about us, our perspective, or how events have affected us, it’s about looking at what’s out there, the source of the problem (or the perceived problem) and getting a new perspective of it – trying to look at the situation through other’s eyes.

It may be hard to see with your own perspective, but whatever people do, they almost always do with a positive intention (otherwise why would they do it?) – i.e. they may have had no positive intention towards you but they have done it for a reason that was positive to them. Try and look at this from their point of view to see what their intention was and at least understand that.

It may be that looking at different perspectives helps to forgive others even if what they have done was wrong (either because they didn’t realize it or because they did but the benefit to them was too great and at least looking at it that way you can have a constructive conversation where, from a position of understanding, at least that makes it easier to talk to them).

It may also be that you just can’t get past your feelings of hurt or resentment but at least after trying to do so and being objective about it you will be freer and more empowered to let go of these people satisfied that you have tried every angle and it’s the best decision to do so – because you deserve to get on with your life.

You can read more about how (and why) to forgive others in this article: How To Forgive (and Why).

Final Thoughts

This is a huge topic. There are some aspects I haven’t covered but I don’t want to write war and peace. If you got this far let me know what you think and anything you want me to expand on and perhaps we’ll have a follow-up. If not, I hope this has helped.

One such aspect is imposter syndrome which I wanted to tackle at some stage but I think is the subject of another article. I find imposter syndrome particularly interesting because I have experienced it with a ‘boss’ I had once and also because of the psychology of it.

I guess one final thought is that a lot of the time office politics are exaggerated events – blown out of proportion and taking on a life of their own.

That’s because when people are put out of their comfort zone, they often do display very exaggerated versions of their worst character traits. They are not themselves – and they don’t realize they are doing anything out of the ordinary.

Exaggeration or not, if it’s a real situation that needs to be dealt with, the first place to start is with yourself, your own interpretation of events, reaching that objective place where rational decisions can be made and then choosing the right action to take wisely.

If it helps, it’s also worth knowing that the only time you really can influence is right now. That can be quite a powerful thought. i.e. spend less time worrying about what has gone by or what might happen and focus on the best decision right now – the good news is that every moment of your life (whether your work life or your personal life – which are actually the same life ;-)), you have a choice (which is also your chance to influence the next moments).


Office Politics: How To Deal With Office Politics — 4 Comments

  1. Alan – you covered a lot of ground here! Context is key, isn’t it? I find there are certain groups in the office who find comfort in backbiting – like they are driven by a common enemy. 9 times out of 10, if these people were confronted with the person they were talking about, they would not repeat any of it!

    I don’t think it’s ‘ok’ if they let off steam like that, so I don’t get involved.

    With perception, it’s important to take time to see the other person’s perspective. When I first moved to Paris, I was concerned about my colleagues not involving me in social events in the office. It took me some time, but I eventually realised it’s because they were embarrassed about their level of English, and had nothing to do with my personality.

    You’re right – this IS a huge topic, and one I could talk about for hours. Looking forward to reading further articles on this from you, and happy to contribute if this helps.

    • You’re right and half the time the people indulging in a little gossip or backbiting don’t realize how hurtful it is if they were to be overheard by the person they’re talking about.

      I like your example about your French colleagues too – often things aren’t what they seem when it comes to perception – again, because a) we all have our own view of the world and b) we’re often pretty hard on ourselves when trying to work out what something ‘means’ (such as your colleagues not involving you in social events).

  2. Good point Sarah, though it’s not only gossip/office politics that happens by the water cooler – sometimes people do some really good networking there too.

    Personally I don’t think we should feel like we have to avoid anywhere (such as the water cooler) due to something like office politics, but I do take your point – it’s an option.

  3. Great tips. I have found that the best way to avoid conflict is to just stay out of it. You can also make more of your work professional, which helps avoid these “water cooler conversations” where these things tend to arise.

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