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Workplace Politics - Friend or Foe?

For the vast majority of us, the word “politics” brings up nightmarish images of leaders abusing their power for their own self-interest. Combine this with our brain’s negativity bias - which is designed to keep us out of harm's way - and it doesn’t take much of a leap to see why many of us see politics as a “foe” to be avoided at all costs.

  • It’s dirty. It’s dishonest. It’s fake. It’s not me.

  • It’s a waste of my time, I have better things to do.

  • My work should speak for itself.

But at its core, politics is also the “friend” that enables us to reach a common decision for a group of people. And as we progress to more senior roles, we have the responsibility and accountability for larger and larger groups of people, so sitting on the sidelines becomes less of an option. In fact, by remaining on the sidelines, we impair our own growth and learning potential, we become narrow in our view, we fail to speak up and advocate for our team and we put a low-ceiling on our ability to impact what happens around us. In some ways, watching from the sidelines seals our fate because we fail to build the relationships we need to be productive, to move our initiatives along and to get results.

At the extreme, our unwillingness to speak up and tell the truth about what we are thinking and feeling becomes its own form of negative and ineffective politics, and we become an active, if unwilling, participant in the behaviours we are trying to avoid.

So, how do we take something that seems dirty and give it some integrity so we can get off the sidelines?

First, shift your mindset.

Inject some integrity back into your view of workplace politics - take it from negative and adversarial to constructive and effective. Wikipedia describes integrity as “the foundation on which coworkers build relationships, trust, and effective interpersonal relationships.” Instead of focusing on negative incidents, look for examples of where decisions resulting from highly effective interpersonal relationships have enabled a win-win.

Second, know yourself and the field in which you are playing.

Kathleen Kelley Reardon offers a great diagnostic for determining what level of politics may be at play in our organization in HBRs Office Politics Isn’t Something You Can Sit Out. From minimally political to pathological - understanding the rules - or lack therefore - will help you to determine how far you may need to stretch your comfort zone. If it’s too far, you may be better served by moving on.

Third, develop a strategy to authentically speak about your work.

Scott Eblin blog post How to speak for your work offers up 7 questions to ask yourself when you want to speak about your work and not to sound like a braggart. If I were to add an 8th question, I would add “Where is credit due?” Accepting and giving credit where it is due and mastering the “We” vs “I/Me” language - especially if you are a woman - is an incredibly important to being perceived as acting from a place of integrity.

Fourth, check your intentions.

Whom does this decision/action/idea truly serve? Walk it back. How does this benefit your organization, your team and finally how does it benefit you? How clearly can you connect your decision/action/idea to the company’s objectives and goals? If there isn’t an obvious connection, ask yourself - is fear at play? Your ego?

Fifth, channel the curiosity of your 2-year old self.

By the time we reach the workforce, our child-like curiosity has largely been replaced by a multitude of less beneficial tactics we have picked up over the years. As we mature, we develop so many mental short-cuts, habits, ingrained assumptions and limiting beliefs that we severely impair our ability to see other options. To be curious, you need to truly listen and ask lots of open-ended questions. What don’t I know about this situation that may impact the way I am seeing this? In doing so, you will learn if others share your perspective and can be potential advocates, or if there are other options you haven’t even considered.

Sixth, look for the win-win.

When you are confronted with a situation where someone perceives they have something to lose, seek out a win-win. It can be as easy as asking the other person “Given the situation, what would make this a win for you?”

Finally, set the example.

If you are in a position of leadership, start by taking an honest look at yourself. When it comes to culture, the leader controls the climate - so what non-constructive politics are you breathing life into?

  • Are promotions and recognition tightly tied to performance or does it come down to who’s the savviest at self-promotion?

  • Are your incentives promoting the desired behaviour or are they inadvertently pitting people against each other?

  • Shut down gossip. As a leader, your team is always watching what you do and what you say. If you talk about people when they are not in the room, expect your teams to do the same.

  • Are you communicating not only your decision, but also the rationale for the decision? When people understand why and how it connects to the company’s mission and vision, they are more likely to understand and accept a decision.

As a coach, we are trained to ask powerful questions. The most impactful shift in my career occurred when my coach asked “What is it only you can do given your position?” It was a wake-up call. If I wasn’t willing to step up, no one else was in a position to do so. At the time we were going through a significant merger and the stakes were high. While not every day will involve a merger, every day does involve decisions that impact your team and your company. So my question to you is “What will you regret a year from now if you choose to stay on the sidelines?”

Bonus - Learning the ropes at your new company

Understanding and adjusting to the unique politics of your new company can be a steep and treacherous learning curve. In early days it’s critical to channel your inner Sherlock and look for clues about your new company’s political landscape in advance of proposing change.

  • Watch how decisions are made. Are the decisions in meetings upheld or are decisions made prior to the meeting and the meeting is only to ratify the decision? Are decisions deferred to specific people in the organization?

  • Pay attention to what is celebrated and recognized. This may help you see if a particular group or action has a perceived higher value.

  • Get social. A great way to observe office politics is to get out from behind your desk and experience the pulse of the organization. Attend group events, team lunches, walk the halls. What are people talking about?

  • Seek out a buddy. A buddy is someone who can show you the ropes and help you spot the landmines before you step on them. Perhaps it’s some who joined a few months ahead of you or a peer on your working team. Someone you can ask “What suggestions do you have for how to approach this?”

  • What names come up frequently? Most organizations have individuals who have more influence than their title would indicate. What can you observe and learn about their actions and behaviour that allows them to gain influence?


Reach Your Peak was born out of my vision to work alongside leaders who thrive and not just survive. As a coach, I am often asked to suggest pieces of thought leadership and tools to support my client’s movement towards their goals. The purpose of this newsletter is to offer this content to a wider audience interested in expanding their learning edge.  

I hope you enjoyed "Workplace Politics: Friend or Foe?" Want more? Subscribe to Reach Your Peak.


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