Have you ever wanted to hide in your cubicle to avoid being sucked into a coworker’s intense conversation about the latest office rumor? If so, you’re not alone. Office politics is often cited as a stressor or a reason to leave a job. In fact, 33% of UK workers report office politics to be a major contributing factor to feelings of unhappiness in the workplace.
If we’re being honest, you should know that office politics aren’t going anywhere. But you may be surprised to learn that that’s a good thing.
“The reality is that politics are a part of every company,” says CEO and The Compass Alliance author Tim Cole. “Whenever three or more people gather there will be politics. But not only can politics be put to good use, they are essential in learning how to engage others, gain consensus, build your sphere of influence and climb the ladder.”
Ready to change your mind about office politics? Here’s how you can use them to your advantage:
1. Accept your political role
“I learned a long time ago that the people who complain most about politics are the people who do not understand politics,” says Cole. “Assuming you can remain apolitical – removed from the day-to-day and fully focused on just your job – is in fact, a political position. If you are a part of a company, you are a de facto member of the political systems that help or hinder that organization’s effectiveness.”
Don’t try to escape it. Politics – not to be confused with straight up gossip – is an important way to keep a pulse on what’s happening around you. Welcome productive conversations that lead to more effective decision-making.
2. Flex your emotional intelligence muscle
Cole cites practicing emotional intelligence as one of the most important ways to productively participate in office politics: “When we educate employees on the importance of this skill set, we use a mirror and a magnifying glass as a metaphorical example,” says Cole. “The magnifying glass stands for our capacity to look at and assess others and our environment. The mirror represents our capacity to look at ourselves and to ask questions that prompt legitimate answers. To navigate office politics successfully, you must consider the merits and limitations of both tools. Only objectivity offers true perspective.”
Too many people dismiss office politics as behind-the-scenes negativity and trash talking. However, when you approach office politics with positive intentions and a high level of emotional intelligence, you’ll end up using your mirror more than your magnifying glass.
3. Build your team
Cole also emphasizes the importance of building a team around you of people you can trust: “Bad office politics implies backstabbing and conspiring for personal gain,” says Cole. “Strong team players can often upset the political pendulum, but they can also restore common sense to the undercurrents that fuel it. For example, good office politics can streamline your workflow by behind the scenes discussion, securing consensus on critical job decisions away from the boardroom and gaining access to information via the power of ‘word of mouth.’”
Don’t stand alone with your opinions. Reach out to team members you trust and whose work you appreciate to build a safe space where you can productively talk through difficult decisions.
4. Know where the action happens
When you engage in office politics, consider all the ways information changes hands. “An example I’ve used for years of the tools of office politics are MAMs, or Meetings After Meetings,” says Cole. “These clandestine conversations represent the dialogue that can’t or won’t be shared in the public forum and instead takes place in the hallways, on Twitter, or on the phone after the formal gatherings.”
If you duck into your office after meetings and avoid office lunches, you’re likely missing out on important conversations in your workplace. You don’t have to give up your lunch break web surfing forever, but make sure you’re spending time where the action is at least a few times per week.
5. Don’t get distracted
At all times, stay aware of the impact office politics has on your performance and the performance of your team members: “The focus on politics can often undermine the importance of more substantive work,” Cole explains. “This can lead employees to devote attention to things that don’t necessarily contribute to the productivity (or profitability) of the company when the whole point of the exercise is to optimize others while optimizing yourself.”
Do you find yourself contributing to the rumor mill? Are you opting to chat with coworkers after meetings instead of completing deadlines or attending to long-term projects? Then you’ve dipped your toe too deep in office politics. Reset your expectations to make sure that productivity comes first and that the politics you engage in only serve to make you work better.
The next time you feel yourself being pulled into a political conversation at work, don’t try to back out of it. Take a deep breath, organize your thoughts and throw in your two cents to have a positive and productive impact on your workplace.