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Workplace Politics: Surviving Shark Infested Waters

Cartoon to show workplace politics, a shark infested place!
Credit: Jover

Defining workplace politics

Politics is defined by the Cambridge dictionary as “the relationships within a group or organization that allow particular people to have power over others”. Workplace politics carry with them several negative connotations, including perceptions of inequality, unfairness, randomness, and deceit, amongst others.

The mere mention of workplace politics can evoke visible tension in some, eye-rolling in others, nervous laughter, or even protests of never playing politics! 

The fundamental problem with the negative shark-like connotation of politics is that it overlooks the fundamental truth of the matter. Politics in a workplace are effectively a series of unspoken rules that govern influence within the organization. The reason many of us tend to dislike politics is that our success depends on these unwritten, and often opaque, rules. Rules that sometimes conflict with official policies or rules leading to a perception of process rigging. Studies find employees who believe their workplace is political, unsurprisingly, tend to be less productive, disengaged, and often leave.

So, resisting politics within the workplace is akin to saying we can do the job well without any need to influence. This, of course, is untrue. Most roles need some level of influence to get things done! 

The question then becomes, how can I leverage workplace politics for good? 

Workplace politics for good

Workplace politics for good are about advancing one’s interests but not to the detriment of the rights of others including those of the organization itself. Good politics include using positive ways to have your ideas taken seriously, to influence what other people think and which decisions are made. It could also include, perhaps counterintuitively, using influence constructively to get recognition for your contributions. Individuals that do it well are often described as being savvy, having a good network, securing buy-in, and managing stakeholders.

When we accept this reality, we control the ability to become more effective, more efficient and happier.

Developing workplace political skills for good

First, recognize that we are already flexible individuals adapting our behaviours to a variety of situations: home, school, and community groups for instance. We do this to achieve the best possible outcome in the given circumstance. This is great news, why? Because it means we each already have a well-honed personal skill that can be applied in professional environments.

Good political skills fall into four broad categories:

  1. Social savvy
  2. Influence
  3. Networking
  4. Genuineness (sincerity)

Let’s look at an example to see how each apply in a workplace circumstance.

Big Four accounting firm competition is intense, where meritocracy can be ruthless. These organizations attract the best and brightest business students, where everyone is replaceable. This translates into working hard, enduring long hours or working through weekends (weeks in excess of 70-80 hours are not unheard of). Kate and Arash joined at the same time, both from top universities. After 12 months, Kate gets a promotion and moves ahead. Arash is resentful and fails to understand why, he too, did not receive a promotion. He recognizes that he needs your coaching help, what advice would you have?

You decide to start with the four political skill categories, so Arash understands them and can self-assess his skill level.

Social Savvy

You explain this is the ability to understand the verbal and non-verbal cues of other people, sometimes referred to as reading someone. You expand on this concept to include self-awareness, in particular how other people see you. It’s about understanding how others see you and recognizing how your behaviour impacts them.

Good questions to self-assess are:

  • How would you describe your communication style?
  • When was the last time you complimented someone?
  • What one thing do you wish others knew about you?
  • Is it more important to be liked by others or to be yourself? Why?


You show Arash this is the ability to affect what other people think as well as how they think. Key in realizing this skill is taking the time to understand the other individual. To learn what their preferences, aspirations, and objectives are, and then personalizing your message to recognize and align to their priorities. In other words, finding common ground and structuring the conversation around the commonalities. This addresses the age-old expression of “what’s in it for me?”

 Good questions to ask peers and key stakeholders are:

  • What do you hope to achieve (in the next year, for instance)?
  • What are the biggest challenges your face day to day in your role?
  • Which one thing would make your work life easier than it is?


You help Arash see that networking is about the ability to develop mutually beneficial relationships with a wide range of diverse people. The ability to influence requires a network of champions that want to support you. The most successful networking experiences are those seeking a friend rather than a “contact” – why? Because it feels less contrived and holds greater long-term value through relationships building over time. It hopefully goes without saying that the investment in developing this network needs to be genuine, we can all spot a social climber that uses others a mile away!

 Good questions to ask networking prospects are:

  • Which kinds of projects are you working on at the moment?
  • What are your favourite foods or places to visit?
  • What do you hope to achieve or build in your lifetime?
  • Where did you grow up?


Through your discussion, Arash recognizes the importance of being honest, open, and forthright. Genuineness is a relative concept, one held by the person with whom we are interacting. In other words, how genuine, sincere or honest we think we are is far less important than how honest other people think we are.

 Good questions to ask yourself are:

  • When it comes to honesty, integrity, and trust, what do the people in your organization expect from you?
  • How do you assess what others think of your honesty, integrity, and sincerity? 

Political skills play a significant role in your career, regardless of how smart and hardworking you are. These skills can bridge a lack of sociability or not being the brightest person in the room. However, a lack of political skill can also quickly derail otherwise intelligent, honest, and hard-working individuals.

Using workplace politics to our advantage

Washing our hands of politics, whether high-mindedly or with disdain, is not only naïve but it puts us in a disadvantaged position. By removing ourselves from the political game, we risk decisions being made by other individuals less experienced, less insightful, and perhaps with less honourable motivations.

Politics can serve a wider public good, it is up to each of us to embrace this side of the process while managing the darker side. 

Your turn

Sign-in to the Community Member Area or comment below to share your views, tips, and tricks on how you successfully manoeuvre workplace politics.

Give it a try!

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