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Navigating Workplace Politics: A Guide to Professional Success

At work, the terms "workplace dynamics" and "politics" are sometimes used interchangeably, but they carry distinct nuances. Workplace dynamics encompass the broader patterns of interaction, communication, and relationships within an organization. On the other hand, workplace politics specifically refers to the use of power and social networking to achieve changes or advancements at work. While politics can be a subset of dynamics, understanding both is crucial for career growth.

You might be thinking, “Power? What power do I have to play politics at work?” Check yourself, you have more power than you think and leveraging it wisely can help you advance in ways you may not yet realize.

Here’s the mistake many professionals make, they believe they can simply focus on their work and remain neutral to the complex web of relationships and unwritten rules that govern their workplace. They believe that just doing good work is enough to get noticed, promoted, or paid more. This approach, while well-intended, can lead to career stagnation or even setbacks.

Take the case of Sarah, a brilliant software engineer who joined a tech startup. Sarah believed her technical skills would speak for themselves, so she kept her head down and focused solely on coding. However, she soon found herself passed over for key projects and promotions. It wasn't until a mentor pointed out that she had failed to build relationships with decision-makers or understand the company's strategic priorities that Sarah realized the importance of leveraging and understanding politics.

For some, the word “politics” leaves a bad taste in their mouth because they associate it with negative behavior. Sometimes, it’s best to reframe what “politics” means for you so that you can fully engage and even benefit from them. Here’s how.

Redefine “politics”, if needed

The term "office politics" can evoke negative connotations, but it's essential to expand our understanding of this concept. Organizational behavior experts define it as "informal, unofficial, and sometimes behind-the-scenes efforts to sell ideas, influence an organization, increase power, or achieve other targeted objectives." This definition is neutral, emphasizing that politics can be either positive or negative depending on how they're employed.

Negative politics might involve manipulating information for personal gain or undermining colleagues. In contrast, positive politics focus on building relationships, sharing information transparently, and advancing the organization's mission, sometimes at the expense of personal ambition.

You can reframe “politics” into “positive politics” or use “workplace dynamics” or redefine it in any way that resonates with you. The point is not to avoid politics, but rather join them in a productive way.

Why engaging in politics matters

Research shows that proficiency in these areas can significantly impact your effectiveness at work. In some cases, strong political skills can even compensate for shortcomings in other areas. Conversely, a lack of these skills can hinder otherwise capable professionals.

A study by Kaiser, Chamorro-Prezumic, and Lusk found that political skills affect career success independently of personality and intelligence. This means that even if you're not the most outgoing person or the smartest in the room, strong political skills can help you advance. Conversely, a deficit in these skills can derail the careers of intelligent, honest, and hardworking individuals.

How to develop your political savvy

To develop these abilities, start by building relationships within your department and gradually expand your network across the organization. Approach this process with a mindset focused on genuine connection rather than immediate personal gain. Step into a learning mindset and be curious.

Here are a few examples. (All persons referenced have had names and identifying details changed):

  • Alex, a finance analyst, started by organizing monthly lunch meetings with colleagues from different teams within the finance department. Over time, he expanded these gatherings to include members from other departments, creating a cross-functional network that proved invaluable when he needed support for a company-wide cost-saving initiative.

  • Andrea, a supervisor, consistently highlights their team members' achievements during meetings with upper management, ensuring that good work is recognized and potentially leading to career advancement opportunities for their direct reports.

  • Robyn, a healthcare administrator, notices a flaw in a proposed strategy and, instead of criticizing it publicly, approaches the idea's originator privately with suggestions for improvement. This approach maintains positive relationships while still addressing issues.

While it might be tempting to avoid politics altogether at work, they are an inevitable part of professional life. The key is to engage with them positively, focusing on building and nurturing constructive relationships throughout your organization.

By developing your political skills and approaching them with a positive mindset, you'll not only advance your own career but also contribute to a healthier, more productive work environment for everyone. Remember, at its core, navigating politics is about understanding people, building genuine relationships, and aligning your goals with those of your organization.

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Until next time!


Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.


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