Office politics is here to stay

Hard work matters, but only those who play the game and blow their own trumpet get right to the top. Jane Clarke finds out how to join them.

by Jane Clarke
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

It's tough out there at the moment. Workloads are up, profits are down, companies are merging and it's all you can do to keep up. The last thing you've got time for is office gossip, poison email traffic or schmoozing your boss at work. You'd rather rise above it all and get on with the job.

There's no doubt about it - office politics gets a bad press, with most people regarding it as a negative influence. It's no wonder so many good managers believe it's best to keep their heads down and focus on the job. Unfortunately, that couldn't be further from the truth. Office politics is on the rise, according to 60% of those surveyed in the course of the research for my book Savvy, and a similar number thought political savvy was integral to being a success at work. That isn't surprising, since politics thrives in times of uncertainty.

The message is loud and clear: we ignore politics at our peril. So, if you want to get ahead, political savvy is the one skill you can't do without. What's more, people are happiest under a politically adept manager, so you'll be doing not just yourself but your whole team a favour by honing your political prowess. Get it wrong or ignore politics completely and you could damage not only your own career but your company's commercial interests as well.

But when the way you speak and act inspires confidence, not just in your team but upwards and across different departments - that's political savvy paying off. After all, you can't effect change if you don't have influence.

Look up the word 'savvy' in a dictionary and you'll find words like 'nous', 'sense' and 'savoire-faire'. People with savvy have an uncanny knack for anticipating problems; for seeing what's around the corner. When challenges materialise they read the politics quickly and accurately and know exactly what to do.

Or in the words of one HR manager in a City law firm: 'To me, political savvy means being aware of who one needs to have on-side to get decisions made, who are the important parties in progressing a project, and who can help you push forward your agenda. It can also mean being aware of the people you shouldn't annoy or upset, or exclude from something.' The good news is that even the most naive among us can learn to be more politically switched on.


Taming Barbarians

The first question to ask is whether you can avoid them. If you can, do. If you can't, the first rule is never to trust them. Any information you provide will be manipulated and misused - and you can be certain that you won't come out in a positive light. In particular, make sure that any emails you send are totally safe. Ask yourself what would happen if they were forwarded to all and sundry and taken out of context. And make sure you cover your back. If you have a conversation with a Barbarian, put in writing what you believe you've agreed.

Handling Machiavellians

Try to avoid conflict with this type but do come across as strong and assertive. This is an important balance to strike; you don't want to be seen as weak in case they start bullying you. But, if you are over-aggressive, they will see you as fair game. Get their respect without compromising your values. And don't be caught out. If they want you to do something, ask lots of questions to clarify the brief. Don't comply unless you feel comfortable and, if you aren't, suggest an alternative. Appear positive and constructive, but don't say 'yes' until you're ready. And, again, watch your emails!

Getting Naives onside

Engage Naives' interest by talking about benefits to the team, rather than to them personally. And, once you have their interest, help them to see the bigger picture, clarify with them the approach they're intending to adopt, and steer them away from militant behaviour. And while they will never come round to Machiavelli's view that 'the end justifies the means', they may start to recognise that a failure to demonstrate political savvy could be damaging to the causes they hold dear.

Learn from the Stars

Stars, on the other hand, don't need much handling, as they do the work for you; they're highly motivated, well intentioned and adept. Learn what you can from them and get them onside; a star is a powerful ally to have in your camp.




It's just a matter of being aware and assertive. It's important to take a positive, proactive approach. This is critical: you're unlikely to have an impact on events and achieve your aims unless you're prepared to take action.

So how can you be sure to get others to say 'yes' to you? As you might guess, it's not always a case of approaching the decision-maker direct. When it's a complicated situation, he or she is often the last person to tackle. It's likely that you'll need to get past certain gatekeepers such as a PA. But who are the other people whose advice the decision-maker takes?

Without considering these other individuals, you could invest a huge amount of time working on the decision-maker, still to be met with a flat 'no'. It's surprising the number of people who have no influencing strategy but just wade in, and are surprised when things don't work out.

The key thing is to be sure of what outcome you want. This may sound obvious, but often we're not 100% certain what the best result would be. Take, for instance, the senior banker I worked with: he had an issue with a trader who was rude and inconsiderate. Initially, the manager said he wanted the trader to be more polite but, after further thought, he had to admit this wouldn't be a good outcome. The trader was actually in the wrong job. So, instead, the manager really wanted to persuade him to move to another role - one more suited to his strengths.

When it comes to exerting your influence, it helps to know who you're dealing with and their methods and motives. Research for Savvy unearthed four main political types. If the person you're dealing with is positively motivated, he or she falls into one of two camps, Stars and Naives. As well as being well intentioned, Stars also have all the skills needed to operate well in the work environment. They're the people at the top of the tree, who we all aspire to emulate. Justin King of Sainsbury's is a bona fide Star with a leadership style that inspires loyalty, and he is credited with transforming the company's fortunes.

Naives have their heart in the right place, but that doesn't stop them making a pig's ear of things. They may be well intentioned but are often thought of as irritants, incompetents or innocents. Given that their motivation is good, you can probably cut them a bit of slack.

By contrast, you may be highly suspicious of some individuals' motives but somewhat unsure of your position because they have friends in the right places and, frankly, have a following. These Machiavellian types are often the toughest to deal with. Their motives are underhand, whether through greed, insecurity, envy, arrogance or revenge, but they are skilled at getting what they want. They're often highly controlling and get a kick out of playing people off against one another - so they're definitely ones to watch out for.

Lastly, the Barbarians are about as subtle as a bull in a china shop. Not only are they out for themselves - they won't think twice before stabbing you in the back - but they possess none of the skills of the Machiavellian and are less effective at making things happen or covering their tracks.

As the box above shows, once you've identified the types you're dealing with, you can work out a strategy to handle them.

Savvy: Dealing with People, Power and Politics at Work by Jane Clarke is published by Kogan Page, £14.99



1. Someone is nasty about you behind your back, but there is a grain of truth in what is said. Do you:

- Email your denial to everyone, making extreme and false allegations about the propagator (Barbarian).

- Talk to the person, explore the issue and agree a plan to address both the complaint and the perception it has caused (Star).

- Send an email to everyone, setting the record straight, and admitting the allegation (Naive).

- Subtly 'correct' the perception with those in power, while taking the chance to cause deep and enduring damage to the propagator (Machiavellian).

2. You've been asked to get involved in a risky and controversial project. Do you:

- Leap at the chance, - any opportunity to be a good corporate citizen (Naive).

- While outwardly supporting the project, and not ruling out the possibility of getting involved, outline why your greatest enemy would be a far better candidate than you (Machiavellian).

- Invent reasons why you cannot be involved - no excuse too bizarre (Barbarian).

- Ask about the rationale for the project and how objectives can best be met, then volunteer if this makes commercial sense, while mitigating the risks (Star).


3. You need help from a notoriously uncooperative department. Do you:

- Talk to senior managers, listing the department's failings and ask if they can pull some strings (Machiavellian).

- Set up a meeting to work through how to collaborate on this particular job - and in future (Star).

- Email staff in the department giving them some frank feedback and asking them to collaborate in the future (Naive).

- Make sure people in your team - and elsewhere - know how uncooperative the department is and tell them to complain to senior managers if they get any trouble (Barbarian).


4. Your line manager has resigned. Do you:

- Apply, outlining how well suited you are, but emphasising the need for teamwork (Star).

- Feel confident your results will speak for themselves - and get irritated if anyone suggests you need to express an interest in the promotion (Naive).

- Call in a few favours, telling people about the problems it would cause them if any of your peers were promoted above you (Machiavellian).

- Claim the credit for all the successes in the team, while belittling your peers' talents (Barbarian).



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