How to win at office politics

Don't think you can ignore the politics in your workplace. Here's how to deal with it and keep your principles.

by Rebecca Alexander
Last Updated: 06 Jun 2016

Those of a sensitive nature might want to look away now. I’m going to talk about office politics.

I’ve lost count of how many people have told me they don’t ‘do’ office politics. And I understand why. Manipulative, self-serving, duplicitous – office politics has a bad press. Any account of corporate collapse or shock resignation shows politics in unvarnished action. But if you think you can sit out the politics, you’re wrong. Not doing it is as much of a statement as doing it, and comes with its own penalties.

Before you dust down your copies of Machiavelli’s The Prince, let’s rethink what we mean by politics. We tend to believe it’s seedy and self-serving. But what if we reframed it as ‘office dynamics’ or ‘office relationships’? We all have to deal with those. We can do that.

Viewed like that, politics already looks more palatable. It’s more in line with the coalition-building transparency of early Borgen, and less like the backstabbing venality of The Thick of It.

There are caveats. Professor Kathleen Reardon describes a spectrum of workplaces from the minimally political at one end, all the way to the pathologically political at the other. Political ‘purists’, will be better off in a minimally political environment, so choose your office accordingly. Most of us can sit comfortably in a moderately political office.

For a playful framework, academics Simon Baddeley and Kim James distinguish between politics aligned with game-playing (the typical ‘office politics’) and political awareness with integrity. Most of us move across the segments. Game-players are unprincipled, self-promoting, sly and clever – what Baddeley and James term the ‘foxes’. The principled crew are wise, aware, accountable, with allies and good interpersonal skills – the ‘owls’.

Two other animals complete the quadrant. The non-political but principled employees who work hard, rarely network, and back the hierarchy. These are the ‘sheep’. And finally, the game-playing but rather inept colleagues who like to think they’re power players but are usually outmanoeuvred. These are the ‘donkeys’.

So, practise politics with a human face. And don’t be a donkey.

Political pointers

• Gen up on the politics of your workplace. Know which ways the prevailing winds blow, and keep your knowledge current, but don't be unduly influenced by it.

• Use that knowledge to think about how you, and your business, can continue to improve and succeed.

• Build a broad base of support by sharing credit for success, doing what you say you'll do, and not bad-mouthing people.

• Take problems and issues directly to the person concerned, rather than airing them in toxic corridor chats.

• Stay interested in people. Build bridges and connections with and between others.

• Stay true to yourself and your values, but learn to flex your approach to meet those that you're dealing with. The message is the same, but the delivery and emphasis might alter.

Rebecca Alexander is an executive coach at The Coaching Studio. Please email comments or questions to or tweet @_coachingstudio

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