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The workplace: It’s a jungle

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Download “Office Politics” here!

Patrick Forsyth looks at the necessity to recognise how office politics affects individual performance and careers.


Unless your office is the exception, it may be that you have noticed that in others, whilst on the surface they run smoothly, efficiently and with hardly a murmur to interrupt the air of pleasant calm, there can be something of an underlying hint of intrigue.  In others again there is an unconcealed hotbed of rivalry, enmity and backbiting.  If you were to find yourself in such an environment you would doubtless stand back from it, stay neutral and uninvolved, and get on with the job. And if you find a single person who believes that, then take immediate steps to sell them London’s Tower Bridge; their gullibility must be immense.

Even if you did stand back from it all, would you thrive?  The trouble with being in the middle of the road is the pronounced tendency to get run over.  And the least said about what sitting on the fence does to you the better.


In most organisations some degree of office politics is one of the givens. Indeed it is normal and perhaps, given human nature, inevitable.  But what does this mean exactly?  On the one hand it conjures up a picture of jockeying for a place on the Board, fighting to become Head of Department, or plotting to take over as Managing Director or Chief Executive.  On the other hand, office politics includes a level of activity at which the goal is seeing who can get the most praise, the largest salary increase, the best office, the prettiest secretary, the most up to date mobile phone or just the seat nearest the window.  What is more, and make no mistake about this, the most vicious infighting is often over the comparatively small prizes.  Hell hath no fury like those who feel that they have unjustly been denied the key to the Executive Washroom.  This is, after all, not something you can forget, and indeed you will doubtless be reminded of it several times a day as you go about your ablutions.

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These undercurrents show themselves in a hundred and one different ways each day.  They show in conversation.  In the insults – There are only two things I don’t like about you – your face; in the rumours – I hear that what’s his name in Research is for the chop; in a dozen different phrases that are designed, not to help, but to stir things up in some way.  They show in the manoeuvring for position, in the bluff and double bluff, in the way that even the mildest mannered employee can be roused to fury by the feeling that they have been slighted, and in the way in which even the most well positioned individuals still seem to strive for more.  Everyone seems to be after something; whether it is control of the whole organisation or just a new filing cabinet (after all, even the person who has everything needs somewhere to put it and many want that to be a nice somewhere).  And whether you get what you want or not, be your ambition large or small, does matter; at least it does to you.


So, realistically, office politics is something that involves everybody to some degree – whether initially they admit it or not.  The question is, therefore, what do you do about it?  How involved do you get and what do you have to watch for, watch out for and do?  There is of course no single nice neat answer.  There is no one thing you can do that will whisk you to the top of the organisational hierarchy, certainly no magical gesture like snapping your fingers and shouting, Promotion! Like so much in organisational life, achieving success is bereft of magic formulae.  There are, however, a variety of aspects of office life through which you can exert some positive influence, or use to watch your back.


Winning the workplace battle is not, to say the least, an exact science.  Without care, planning and guile you are left subject to circumstances and other peoples’ ambition. You are apt to end up like a midget dancing with a lady of abundant bust – unable either to see where you are going or even to hear the music.


There are only two overall ways of setting out to win the office war.  If you are to progress unscathed through the office jungle, indeed if you are not just to survive but to prosper, one approach is just to do a good job, trusting that the powers that be will notice what you do, and that virtue will bring its own reward.  You may believe this is sufficient.  You may be right: good work and a measure of good luck may conceivably be enough. Pigs might fly; there is evidence aplenty that doing a good job does not automatically always get the recognition it deserves, and certainly looking like doormat pretty much guarantees to get you trodden on. As for good luck, that can only ever be certainly relied upon to explain the success of your rivals.


Alternatively, you can do both a good job and work at ensuring that people – the right people – do notice.  So that you do get the recognition you deserve and achieve some of your other goals along the way.  The latter approach may be a safer bet, and working on being a success is even more important if you are not in fact doing a good job; which is exactly what some of those who thrive in business do. So, you must be careful about everything from the profile you project and the accuracy and style of your communications to the people you meet along the way; they could be friend or foe and it is worth remembering a phrase attributed to Ashleigh Brilliant, “I always win. You always lose. What could be fairer than that?”

Careers need managing and realistically one thread of this is to avoid the negative side of office politics and use those things that will assist your security and progress. Certainly it is another area where success does not just happen – it needs working at.

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