How to win at office politics

From feuds and power-hoarding to credit-stealing and cliques, workplace power plays can undermine an otherwise successful business.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 12 Feb 2020

It’s tempting to think of office politics as a low-rent problem.

Leaders will surely, you might think, have risen above the petty shop-floor squabbles of who sits where, who ate whose lunch or who said what about whom in the toilets. 

Anyone who’s read Machiavelli - or spent any considerable time amongst politicians - will of course realise that power plays among senior people are just as common, only with considerably higher stakes and, if anything, conducted with a bit more panache.  

Credit Suisse CEO Tidjane Thiam has discovered this to his cost. One of Europe’s most successful chief executives, he was ousted last week after a bizarre power struggle involving a spurned protege, overgrown trees, a cocktail party, boardroom cliques and a dramatic showdown with corporate private detectives in front of the Swiss Central Bank.

Thiam’s case may not be typical, but there are general lessons that can be learned about how to negotiate the perils of office politics. 

First thing’s first - know what you’re up against

Office politics occurs whenever individual concern with power or status ends up damaging the effectiveness or smooth functioning of a team. 

It can take many forms, but here are some of the more insidious:

Gossip - where colleagues bad-mouth you behind your back

Power hoarding - where someone jealously guards whatever authority they have, to the point of being deliberately obstructive

Credit stealing - where your ideas and hard work miraculously transform into your boss’s

Cliques - where everyone else on the board plays golf together every Saturday and you’ve never been invited

Feuds - where you have a nemesis

Aside from being frustrating, distracting, demotivating and isolating, such behaviours can seriously damage the business by undermining working relationships, driving away talented staff, cultivating groupthink and increasing bureaucratic inertia. At worst, they can get your company on the front pages for all the wrong reasons, as Credit Suisse discovered. 

Handling office politics: Step by step

It’s not always obvious when you’re on the receiving end of a power play, so the first thing to do is confirm whether your suspicions are valid. 

Leadership coach Ros Taylor recommends treating it like a scientific project, enlisting the observations of a small group of people you trust (dare we say, an inner circle). Indeed, such a move may be particularly helpful when you’re up against a clique - if you can’t join the in-crowd, or don’t want to (not everyone likes golf, after all), then form your own.

“My next step is to work out the why. For example, it often happens when you’re a new person heading up a team that’s already well-established, and insecure people get really bent out of shape trying to put you in your place,” says Taylor. 

The easiest way of finding out why they’re acting a certain way, and also of neutralising negative behaviour, is to get to know them. “Take them out for lunch or a coffee. Once you get to know somebody, it’s much harder to use them in a bad way,” says Taylor.

Of course, getting to know someone doesn’t guarantee you’ll like them or vice versa, but it will let you know which buttons to press. If their negative behaviour is the result of a massive (albeit bruised) ego then use that to your advantage by making them feel important. Ask for their help and step to their side. 

Only if none of this works should you resort to a more direct approach. Taylor recommends keeping a close record of incidents, so you can come armed with facts. "Look, this is the fifth time people have come to me saying you’ve been talking behind my back and it’s very upsetting. This has to stop, and if it’s not I’m going to HR, our line manager or the board." 

It’s a definite escalation, but it’s important to remember to be professional at all times.

“Never lose your temper - once you lose your temper you lose the argument. What I try is to use the language of emotion, which is much more powerful. ‘This is fifth time and I am incandescent with rage.’ Neuroscientists now know that if you identify an emotion with a word, that emotion goes from your limbic system into your central lobe, i.e. to your rational thought processes and it diminishes in strength so that you can actually use it to your advantage,” says Taylor.

The final resort, she adds, is to consider your position - if the business isn’t prepared to do something about toxic behaviours even after you’ve flagged them, then it may not be the kind of place where you want to continue to work.

And if you’re tempted to stoop to their level, don’t. Ultimately, it isn’t really possible to ‘win’ at office politics. You may get one up on your nemesis, but collectively you’ll all suffer.

Image credit: MICHAEL BUHOLZER/AFP via Getty Images

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