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Mention office politics, and you evoke images of a Machiavellian world of power plays, whisper campaigns and backstabbing. Most people claim to dislike office politics and prefer to avoid the intrigue. But everyone plays politics in business, because politics pervades all human activities. Most political maneuvers are behaviors that a decent person does anyway, such as taking a sincere interest in your co-workers or offering a colleague unexpected help or praise. Office politics is an unavoidable game, and it is most dangerous when you play badly.
“Humans are intricate emotional and psychological creatures, and each of us has multiple, sometimes contradictory, motivations.”
As in poker, the key to winning is the ability to “read” other people and pick up the subtle cues that reveal the “game under the game.” But “workplace poker” is more difficult than the card game because the rules aren’t always clear. However, with a few new skills, you can master a strategic approach to your career. And, as you improve at the game, you might even come to like it.
“When the really bad things happen in your career, managing your mental and emotional state is probably the most critical task.”
The most essential skill in workplace poker is the ability to understand your co-workers on a deeper level. Focusing on doing a good job may seem easier, and it’s less confusing than decoding messy human emotions, attitudes and motives. But to accelerate your career, you need to know your colleagues and bosses and to understand the connections among them.
“The most successful individuals do not look for a culture that fits them; instead they flex their own natural style to fit the business culture that best serves their career.”
Unearth this complex and often hidden information by observing. Take time off from obsessing over your worries and deadlines, and note what your colleagues say and do. Pull back and watch how they interact with others. Adopt a nonjudgmental mind-set, as if you’re a scientist making field notes about a group of social animals. Note how your co-workers behave in business meetings, around the water cooler and on the phone. How do they respond to setbacks? What do they communicate with their posture and facial expressions, and how do they organize their offices or cubicles? Soon, you should be able to describe the personas they present through their work habits, levels of competence, and personal and professional aspirations.
“Truly charming people are not just more pleasant to work with; they actually seem to be luckier than the rest of us.”
Learn who has true power and influence, regardless of titles. Figure out which people have earned respect and why. Determine who functions as a loner and who gravitates to groups. Build a network of alliances. Don’t be cliquish; instead, build positive relationships with as many people as you can on every level of the hierarchy. Don’t exclude people you dislike. Foster goodwill and warmth by being a friendly, positive person who offers help and support.
“In many ways, charm is really simple. It is the art of letting people know that you feel good about them, without embarrassing them or asking anything of them in return.”
Top workplace poker players learn everything they can about their company and its industry, processes and culture. The better you understand your company’s goals and values, the better you can chart a course through that culture and prosper.
“Be a good observer and…use the information you gain to develop a deeper awareness of the working network you operate within.”
“Tony,” a telemarketer with a San Diego firm, applied this method. Unlike his colleagues, he deduced that the corporate branch where he worked was going to close. He cultivated connections with a wide range of people in the organization, including the gruff, unloved VP of marketing. When the VP gave Tony career advice, he noticed it centered on opportunities outside the firm. Acting on this and other clues, Tony had several job interviews in place when his branch closed.
“If you don’t read people well, you’re climbing up a wobbly career ladder. Blindfolded.”
Prince or Princess Charming
Charm is one of the most useful tools for accelerating career growth. Fortunately, being charming isn’t so difficult. It doesn’t require you to develop a new, extroverted personality. The secret lies in taking a genuine interest in other people. When you show people you feel good about them, you make them feel good about themselves.
“When you are observing people, it is often the extremes in their behavior that are the most telling.”
Work on seeing other people deeply; take in their flaws and positive attributes without judgment. When you interact with them, give them your full attention. Practice a similar equanimity about your own flaws, if you’re too wound up in your insecurities, you can’t give your full attention to another person.
“Rational discomfort or fear often serves us well.”
Humor is an important ingredient in charm. To use humor effectively, keep it light and natural. Don’t obsess on coming up with the perfect bon mot. Focus on the other person and let humor arise organically from the conversation. While you should never make jokes at other people’s expense, self-deprecating quips can add to your charm.
“We need to tell our bosses (and anyone else with influence over our career progress) what we’re doing and the results we’ve produced.”
Doing a great job is not enough. You have to make sure your bosses know you’re doing a great job. You needn’t regard self-promotion as distasteful. If you do it correctly, you won’t come across as a braggart. To promote your talents appropriately and professionally:
“The very best political players work to understand their businesses far beyond the specific requirements of their job.”
- Be your own “billboard” – Presenting yourself well is as important in business as it is in the theater. When you offer an attractive appearance, you stand out. Aim to dress slightly better than your peers, smile and make eye contact. Pay attention to your fingernails, breath, makeup and accessories. Being overweight can “change the way” others perceive you and can undermine your career ascent.
- Use social networks wisely – Manage your online profile carefully, not only on professional networks like LinkedIn, but also on Facebook or your blog. Consider your every online appearance as a part of your professional life. Potential and current employers will review all of these sources. Delete anything from your social media accounts that might appear unprofessional. Search your name online. If you find anything negative, get it deleted if you can. Otherwise, find ways to crowd the negative posts off the first few pages of results. One woman was able to do this by referring to her name frequently in her personal blog and in her profiles for Facebook, Twitter and Google+.
- Build a “career performance portfolio” – Document or catalog your work, along with testimonials or awards highlighting your achievements and talents. Create a binder from which you can pull relevant pages for interviews or other career-building activities.
- “Whiteboard” your presentations – To stand out immediately, conduct your presentations with a whiteboard instead of PowerPoint. With PowerPoint, you take a backseat to your presentation. With a whiteboard, you take center stage. Because you write out data or draw diagrams in front of your audience, you communicate mastery of your material. When you make data appear as you talk, you capture viewer attention.
- Tell them about it – One obstacle to career advancement is that many executives remain unaware of their staff members’ specific projects and accomplishments. You can rectify this in an informal way. If your boss greets you with “How’s it going?”, don’t give a generic answer. Instead, plug your accomplishments: “It’s going fine. We’re particularly energized by our progress on…” Your annual performance review is another acceptable opportunity for self-promotion. Don’t take a passive approach and let the boss do all the talking. Advocate for your particular career goals by reviewing your portfolio and being ready to describe your contributions during the year. If your review is particularly positive, save a record of it in your portfolio.
- Don’t make it look too easy – Don’t undersell tasks that are easy for you. Resist the urge to knock out a financial analysis or marketing scheme at lightning speed just because you can. Your supervisors will undervalue tasks that you make appear simple. Slow down to create the impression that the task was demanding but you were up to the challenge. However, if you struggle to finish a project by the deadline, maintain the illusion that things are going smoothly.
- Help and advocate for others – Just as you practice charm, you can self-promote effectively by focusing on others’ achievements and needs. For instance, if you finish a project ahead of schedule, mention to your boss that you’re free to help out on other projects. This communicates your competence and shows you are willing to pitch in with extra work. Highlighting your colleagues’ achievements nurtures goodwill among your co-workers, and they may reciprocate your praise. As a bonus, advocating for others makes you look less opportunistic when you toot your own horn.
“There is a degree of deep confidence you see in people who are fully aware of and comfortable with their own faults and failings.”
Another essential element in excelling at workplace poker is handling adversity, which usually comes in the form of rejection, criticism or failure. Career growth requires constantly pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone. Evolving and advancing in your career is likely to involve a degree of rejection and some efforts that just don’t work out. The best political players accept these side effects and the uncomfortable feelings that come with them. They push on regardless. By confronting rejection, they grow accustomed to operating outside their comfort zones.
“If there is one absolute fundamental rule for your career and your life going forward, it has to be taking complete personal responsibility for every situation and circumstance.”
When you find yourself in an adverse situation, the most productive thing to do is to accept that your actions and decisions created the situation. Even if a volcano erupts in the middle of your lawn and destroys your house, take responsibility; perhaps you should have researched the area’s geology more carefully. Don’t blame other people for your situation or act like a victim of circumstances. That would be like a chess player complaining about a position on the board, when the player himself or herself created that position over the course of the game. Analyze what you did or didn’t do to shape the situation. Think about why you made those choices. Determine what you can learn from them. When you accept responsibility for your circumstances, you will come to understand that you have the power to improve them.
When you face a career calamity, like an unexpected layoff, respond with fast, precise, large-scale engagement. If you’re like many people, your initial reactions to disaster include denial, indecision and apathy. Eventually, you rally enough to take one action, like submitting your résumé to other firms in your field. If that doesn’t spark the response you want, you try a second action – maybe polishing your LinkedIn profile. Instead, take fast action on several fronts at once. Brainstorm every possible solution, list the most promising and execute them all immediately.
To win at workplace poker you must maintain a high level of energy. You need stamina to work long hours, fortitude to keep going in the face of negative outcomes, and creativity to overcome soul-sapping standardization and routine. Cultivate and nourish four types of energy:
- “Physical energy” – You need to be physically fit before you can harness the other types of energy. If you sit most of the time, your body adjusts your metabolism accordingly, supplying only enough energy for sitting. If you want your body to supply more energy, place greater demands on it through vigorous exercise. An energy-boosting regimen includes cardiovascular and strength workouts, frequent “movement breaks” away from your desk and at least seven hours of sleep each night.
- “Emotional energy” – You generate emotional energy when you work in an environment in which you feel secure and where you make valuable contributions. Even if your workplace is not ideal, you can take steps to pump up your emotional vitality. Assert your individuality in subtle ways, and buoy the office’s overall well-being by appreciating your colleagues’ work.
- “Mental energy” – When you work long hours, take measures to remain alert and engaged. Customize your work sessions to harmonize with your “natural mental energy cycle.” Most people’s cycles last from 90 to 120 minutes, so work in blocks of that length, followed by 15-minute breaks. Experiencing an energy dip around 4:30 each afternoon is common, so schedule a 20-minute nap around that time. Figure out when during the day you have the greatest energy – for most people it’s the morning – and work on your most challenging projects then.
- “Aspirational energy” – The mind constantly looks for opportunities to grow. When your career stalls and progress seems remote, you lose aspirational energy. Take time to crystallize your career vision and clarify what you hope to accomplish. Then find ways to feed those aspirations.