Office politics: productive competition or a complete nightmare?

Marguerite MacRobert

“Office politics” is often the weary response people give when asked how their day at work was. Social networking should be a natural part of any organisation, and there is usually some healthy competition at work. When competition turns into jockeying for power and control, and social networking degenerates into manipulation of social influence for personal gain, a line is crossed and we get office politics. In this post, Namibia Planners cover some ways to avoid office politics and make your office culture more productive and cooperative.

Reputation and respect

While some play at office politics for a quick fix of status and power, they eventually get sussed out as people who want to go far quickly with little effort, respect and a good reputation are earned.  Hard work, honesty and friendly professionalism are reputations worth cultivating rather than just popularity for buying everyone a drink, or being the centre of attention in every office drama.

People who try to win influence by taking on more projects than they can deliver on, or claiming authority they don’t actually have, tend to look like great team players right up until they let everyone down, and start playing the blame game. ‘Under promise and over deliver’ is a much better maxim to live by, and people tend to respect results over big talk.

Centre of attention

Some people get cheap laughs and hold everyone’s attention with crass jokes, bullying tactics and buying influence with favours. This might look effective, but such popularity is skin-deep. 

Many who are laughing along will later confide that they find this behaviour unbearable. Worse still,  the crass joke teller is in danger of getting smacked with a harassment charge for going too far in pursuit of a laugh. Telling off-colour jokes with sexist, sexual or racist overtones at colleagues’ expense is a dangerous game to play.

If you’re constantly feeling left out because someone hogs the limelight with cheap tricks, watch your colleagues’ reactions more closely. You might be surprised to notice the laughter is superficial and that many colleagues are showing signs of discomfort.

If someone is lowering the tone with crude jokes, or bullying with inappropriate teasing or talking over a colleague, call them out firmly and politely. Try saying something like, ‘Phew! I think that joke makes some of us uncomfortable. Let’s keep things professional, shall we?’ 

This might feel like you are being a kill-joy, and they’re bound to hit back with ‘It’s only a joke.’ The best move here is to respond, ‘A joke is only truly funny if we’re all enjoying it and it’s not making anyone uncomfortable.’

Your colleagues will know you’ve done the right thing, even if it is awkward, and appreciate the bravery it takes standing up for others. You will be helping set a healthier tone with more professional boundaries, and this will ultimately improve the office atmosphere. Showing you are a person of integrity is worth more in the long term than getting a quick laugh.

Gossip versus tact

Anthropologists believe gossip possibly evolved as a useful way for humans to communicate valuable intimate information to each other as a form of social bonding. Yet we all know there is a big difference between, for example, sharing useful information about the best way to work with a colleague who is deadline-challenged, and maliciously talking that person down behind their backs. Even worse is spreading rumours which someone only discovers once the damage to their reputation has already been done.

Tact and kindness are of the essence when giving feedback about a colleague who is not around to defend themselves. Blaming others, putting them down or gossiping about their personal lives will make you look unfair and untrustworthy, at worst, indiscreet at best.

As a rule of thumb, try to only say about others behind their backs what you would be comfortable saying to their faces. If someone moans to you about a colleague, recommend they speak to the person directly themselves about their problem. This would be best for their relationship with that colleague, as well as their relationship with you.

If you feel it would be helpful to say something in confidence about a colleague, based on your experience, try your best to phrase it with tact, and generously look for the positive in the person or situation.

For example, if someone asks how on earth you cope working with Henry, who has a reputation for unreliability, you could point out some of his great qualities as a colleague, like his brilliant ideas. Then add positive ways you have learned to work around his time-management problems, like setting clear sub-goals to every project, with their own deadlines, and sending cheerful reminders the day before each is due (for more of our great time management tips look here).

Reiterate that nobody is perfect, and we all need to adapt to each other’s weaknesses and play to each other’s strengths. This shows you to be fair-minded, and solution- rather than problem-orientated. If you need to vent about a difficult colleague, save it for a trustworthy friend, preferably outside the office.

People tend to decide how you will treat them based on how you treat others, and you are showing how you would like to be treated too. This can increase positive cooperation and trust in your organisation enormously.

Winning at theatre sports

Some people create drama wherever they go. Flirting with a married colleague, hinting at someone making a play for the boss’s job, letting you know that there are rumours about you, but declining to elaborate…. There’s always a sense of excitement, if not impending crisis, around this person.

If a colleague is constantly stirring everyone up, and disrupting productivity with messages and meetings that are somehow always urgent and seem slightly overblown, take a step back before responding. 

Ask yourself if something is really a looming disaster, demanding urgent action NOW!!! or if you should just finish what you were doing, and take a calm look at a more appropriate time. You’d be surprised how quickly dramas lose energy and urgency if they are simply put on pause.

The person starting them will often stop bothering you once they cease to get their fix of excitement and attention. Many colleagues will appreciate a sense of calm and rationality returning to the office, and also drop out of the drama club.

The only way, in fact, to win when someone plays games, is not to play at all. Again, you might feel a little left out at first, or like life is less exciting. But long term, you should get noticed for establishing a calm energy, freeing up time for positive productivity and creativity, which is actually much more interesting.

Dramas created by a colleague who you suspect has a personality disorder can have more serious consequences. Their need to create emotional highs and lows can get others into serious trouble along the way. If you suspect someone is messing with your sanity, seek professional counselling to clarify your thoughts and develop a strategy for dealing with this person.

We hope Namibia Planners’ tips help you improve your office politics or at least survive them with good grace! Let us know your top tips for coping with office politics in the comments!

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