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Navigating the Politics of your Workplace

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There are a few things you can do to help yourself navigate the politics of your workplace:

  • Study the organizational chart. Get a copy from your supervisor or from human resources; or, if necessary, try to construct one yourself. This will give you a good idea of how the organization is set up on paper who reports to whom, where each division lies, and so on.

  • Figure out what the "real" chart looks like. After a period of time, you will see that regardless of how it looks on paper, power is distributed in a different way. You may find that the secretary to the president has more real power than a vice president.

  • Be a good person. Sometimes people overlook this simple principle. By treating people with respect regardless of whether they are above you on the organizational chart, in the next cubicle, or reporting to you you will earn their respect.

  • Be a good listener. Sometimes your coworkers will just need an ear. They may want to vent about that jerk in accounting, or they may want to complain about how the step up in production is going to create problems on the assembly line. Regardless of the issue, pay attention to what they are saying, and show them that you have heard them and understand what they are saying. That doesn't mean that you should chime in with your two cents about the people in accounting. Your best bet is to speak no ill of anyone else in the workplace. Just having you listen to them non judgmentally is enough to make your coworkers think you are "on their side."

  • Gossip is inevitable, but don't believe it unless you see it yourself, and even then don't be so sure. Even Machiavelli would be unable to keep all of the plots straight, with twelve different versions of each story, all containing a certain amount of truth, twelve different motivations for sharing the story with you, etc. Don't get caught up in it. If someone tells you that Stephanie from the other territory is trying to steal your account, don't act on it unless that action is going directly to Stephanie and asking her. If a person tells you such a story, in fact, suggest that the two of you approach Stephanie right then. More often than not, the person who brought you the message will back down quite a bit from his or her assertions.

  • Don't let the gossip get beyond you. I know a lot of people who are well respected who have been made to look foolish by passing on a story that was not true. This is also true for passing on urban legends and Internet hoaxes. It's worse when the message was gossip that turned out to be untrue. In those cases, the once well respected people look malevolent and end up being less trusted.

  • Build relationships. Every new worker figures out that they need to please their boss. This is a given, although you should be aware of the possibility that you will be perceived as a brown-noser. Just as important as building those relationships with those above you, you must strive toward building relationships with those beside you and below you on the organizational chart. I know of a person who was pretty well respected in their field who applied for a lateral job with a better organization. Unfortunately for this person, the secretary for the person doing the hiring had worked for the applicant a couple of years before. I say unfortunately because the secretary had left because she had not been treated very well. This person made it through the first round of interviews but never really stood a chance of getting the job, because the secretary had a chance to give her input on the situation. You just never know who might have the chance to help or hurt you in the future, so you should be consistently decent with everyone.

  • Do not be too provincial. It's very easy to get into set patterns at work. Before too long you can be hanging out with the same people after work, on breaks, and at lunch. Break those patterns. Set aside at least two days a week where you eat your lunch with people from another department. Get involved in activities that involve people from outside your department. Softball and bowling teams are a great way to meet new people, establish new relationships, and relax at the same time.

  • Seek out a mentor. As you move around the organization, keep an eye out for those people who have been successful. Try to establish contact with these people, and choose one with whom to establish a deeper relationship maybe someone with whom you have something in common or have a particular rapport. Ask this person for their advice on topics that are puzzling you. Over time this person can help you as you make the decisions that will determine whether you move up within the organization.

  • Remember that the bottom line is that if you look good (but not too good), they look good. If you look bad, they look worse. Try to find that balance where your boss still thinks of you as a "self starter" but also as a person who is smart enough to seek advice from her or him.

  • Ask a lot of questions. If you tell your boss "We should stop painting the flange first and then adding the rivets; we should paint the flange after we put in the rivets," your boss may dismiss your suggestion without even thinking about it. If you ask "It seems we spend a lot of time repainting the flanges after the rivet gun hits them; do you think we could paint the flanges after they are riveted?", the response you get may be quite different.

  • Don't get caught up in seeking credit. In the above scenario, the result is likely to be that your boss will announce that she has had a breakthrough: From now on, you will paint after the riveting is completed. The fact is, the boss may actually believe that it was her idea. That really doesn't matter. Again, if it helps your boss and helps the company, it helps you.

  • Communicate bad news and criticism verbally; communicate good news in writing. E mail is considered writing. Both are more permanent than the spoken word, and your words on paper will be associated with you long after spoken words melt away. This way, people will remember the good news much more clearly than the bad news.

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