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Win the Office Politics Game

by Cheryl Whitman

Your ability to manage office politics can make or break your practice. Here's how to deal with common political "saboteurs"

Say the words "office politics" and otherwise unwrinkled faces become immediately creased. Just the sound of those words can make some people run for cover. For many, office politics immediately elicits a sense of disdain and discomfort.

Those of us who are comfortable playing the office politics game can gain an important advantage in conveying our ideas and recommendations to employees. For others not so well versed, the office politics game can be detrimental and can negatively affect your practice.

Chuck Gallozzi, president of Personal-Development.com, explains, "The office environment is like a family environment. Coworkers, like family members, may experience rivalry, frustration, a struggle for recognition, and a desire to become leader of the pack. In the struggle to assert oneself, harsh words and devious deeds may take place."

So, how do you harness the positive aspects of office politics while defusing the negative ones? If your first impulse is to blow up the water cooler to tame the gossip in your office, you are already off to a bad start.

Office politics and gossip are not the same. According to Dictionary.com, office politics differ from office gossip in that people participating in office politics do so with the objective of gaining advantage, whereas gossip can be a purely social activity.

Office politics are politics that exist in an office relating to that organization. It is a term for both productive and counterproductive competitive human factors present among coworkers, in any office environment.

Let's face it: Office politics are here to stay. Famed US aphorist and author Mason Cooley said it best: "Office politics are bloody-minded, but weak on content."

The call to action to defuse the office politics maven is essential. Learn to weed out staff members who use the office politics game to advance their own personal agendas, regardless of the implications for their peers and for your practice.

Instead, rally together those who understand that some aspects of office politics can be effective in gaining a consensus and understanding for key practice objectives. There are some simple actions you can implement into your work behavior to pre-empt these politics.

"When people talk about office politics, they usually mean something dirty or underhanded," says management professor Allan Cohen, dean of faculty at Babson College, Babson Park, Mass, and coauthor of Influence Without Authority (John Wiley & Sons, 1991). "But nobody exists in an atmosphere where everybody agrees. Politics is the art of trying to accomplish things within organizations."

Here are some typical scenarios and tips on handling the office politics mistress.

The Office Princess

I am sure this moniker has raised a few eyebrows and chuckles as you quickly put a face on the office princess who appears to be wreaking havoc on your ability to achieve and maintain "office calm."

Case study 1: Plastic surgeon, Beverly Hills, Calif. "When I first started my plastic surgery practice, I was so concerned about marketing and having the right equipment that I did not give much thought to the daily interactions of my office staff. Wow, was that wrong. Within weeks, the undercurrent of disharmony advanced by the 'office princess' threatened to push me off my 'throne' of success.

"I applied a few key coaching principles to working with my princess, and within a short time she was a loyal and supportive member of my team, without the royal affiliation! My approach focused less on putting her in her place and more on getting her to change."

If you encounter an office princess, here are some helpful tips from Rick Brandon, PhD, and Marty Seldman, PhD, coauthors of Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success (Simon & Schuster, 2004):

"If you were not annoyed and were the person's manager, or friend, or mentor, one strategy is to simply help the person realize she is probably hurting herself and could get herself into hot water by offending the wrong person, so that you'd suggest monitoring what she says," the authors write. "Winning her confidence and appreciation may gain enough points with her on more obvious issues like the discriminatory comments that could earn a lawsuit or firing, and might then pave the way for you to later approach the more subjective, less intrusive issues like simply being too self-focused."

The Office Tattletale

Yes, it sounds like we are back in the sandbox fighting to take away our friend's toy, but we have all observed the office tattletale who relies on telling slanted stories to peers and supervisors to gain a positive light of superiority and a false perception of preferential treatment. We all know that these "office tattletales" rely on political lobbying-like techniques to get others to join forces with their negative storytelling. They disrupt the status quo, and they consistently derail the otherwise great intentions of your dedicated, professional, and caring staff.

Case study 2: Plastic surgeon, Miami. "I just couldn't believe what was happening to my life. At night and on weekends, I was breaking up little arguments between my very young children, only to return to work on Monday and hear the same disruptive arguments from grown adults. I felt frustrated and hugely out of control.

"I decided to apply commonly used behavioral-modification tactics that are time-honored with children to my own staff. Although I wouldn't admit to them that I treated them like children, hey, it worked. After all, they were acting like children, right?"

If the tattletale is your Achilles heel, here is some great advice from Timothy L. Johnson, author of the recently released book, Gust: The "Tale" Wind of Office Politics (Lexicon, 2007). He writes, "The trick is to regain the power that you have abdicated to their bad behaviors. You don't have to correct the mistakes their parents made (most HR departments frown on taking a colleague over your knee for a good spanking, regardless of how pleasant the image may be).

"You can, however, take control of each situation and let them know what you will and will not tolerate from a behavioral perspective. And above all, document, document, document (and if you need to, start recording conversations as well)."

If you encounter the dreaded office tattletale, here are some remedies for you to try to squelch the negative chatter.

First, let the tattletale know that his or her behavior is a distraction to your office's effectiveness and productivity. You might explain in a nonpunitive way that the impact of the tattletale's actions on you and others is disruptive and unkind.

Also, remind him or her of the proper channels of communication so he or she knows that you are available and eager to listen to his or her concerns. Always remember that important information could be exchanged under the guise of tattletelling that may merit further research on your part. For example, there could be breaches of human resources (HR) policy or other regulatory or compliance issues.

Reassure the tattletale that his or her input is vital to the organization and that you want to hear him or her, but that the method for disseminating information should be handled in a more professional manner. Use this as an opportunity to review your practice's HR policies and procedures, and be sure that everyone in your office receives regularly scheduled updates on changes and revisions.

If you have not revisited your HR manual lately, the time to do so is now. What is at stake is not just a great working atmosphere and peer relations, but also your livelihood.

Due to negligent interactions with these employees, you could be liable down the road. Therefore, use care and caution to ensure that you do everything legally and according to the policies that govern your practice.

The Office "Mean Girl"

You know the employee I am referring to here: that one girl in the office who has a mean streak a mile wide and can easily make everyone her target. Make a concerted effort to understand what motivates the "mean girl" to act the way she does so that you can curtail her negative impact.

Case study 3: Plastic surgeon, New York City: "We have adopted a zero-tolerance policy that deals clearly and swiftly with 'mean girl' issues. We have specific rules listed in our HR handbook, and we ask that all our employees sign a conduct agreement when they join us.

"For the most part, my employees are thrilled that I address this issue with them at the time of hire. It sets the stage for a good working rapport with their peers, and provides a good working relationship with me built on obvious respect for each and every employee."

Linda Kaplan Thaler, coauthor of the best-seller The Power of Nice: How to Conquer the Business World with Kindness (Currency, 1996), says, "Negative office politics that are directed at you are often the result of someone's insecurities. He or she could be threatened by your proficiency, your ability to please the boss, etc.

"The obvious tactic would be to challenge their comments or bounce back with an equally negative retort. But the more productive strategy could be to assume goodwill, and try to understand his or her issues, fears, etc. You can begin to break down their armor by offering a simple compliment ("great job on that last report"), provided that it is an honest and true assessment."

To defuse the mean girl, be nice to her, she recommends. "It may seem somewhat counterintuitive, but being nice can be the most effective tool for success when dealing with office politics," she says.

Fundamentally, she explains, "Office politics are typically used with the objective of trying to gain an advantage in the work environment, and often it may appear that the employee who is skilled at office politics is mean-spirited.

"While we all share this goal of striving to get ahead, instead of expending lots of negative energy rushing to grab a slice of the pie for yourself, think about how you can broaden your horizons and bake a bigger pie so everyone gets a piece," she continues.

"When you bake a bigger pie, it is the ultimate win–win situation. You get more of what you want and feel better about what you're doing, and you create a new recipe for success."

See also "A Work in Progress" by Cheryl Whitman in the February 2007 issue of PSP.

While being nice may not be the answer to every negative encounter with an office politics expert, according to Kaplan Thaler, starting with nice is a good first approach. She reminds us to confidently and calmly confront the politician in question. Sometimes, the issue can dissolve on its own by simply having that person clearly articulate his or her goals to you.

Or perhaps it is something the two of you could work on together. More often than not, when you confront the problem head-on the solutions will come much more quickly than if you let the issue linger.

The most important thing you can learn in mastering the game of office politics is that you cannot ignore it or wave it away with a magic wand. You must embrace a skillful, knowledge-based, proactive, and timely response. Learn to recognize the many faces of office politics and work skillfully to derail the office politics saboteurs in your office today

Cheryl Whitman is the founder and CEO of Beautiful Forever, where she spearheads a successful team of medical-spa consultants and business professionals. For more information, call (877) SPA-MEDI or go to www.medicalspaconsultant.com.

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