Why do so many middle managers get stuck & fail to progress in their careers? They ignore office politics

A 2008 survey that revealed 90% of British managers believe political skill is required to improve career prospects. But another survey that investigated what most stresses people out at work put office politics at the very top — ahead, even, of workload, a stalled career, job insecurity and red tap.

So it seems that office politics is regarded as necessary but stressful. 

And the problem is that organisations don’t offer official training to improve their employees political IQ — it’s something all HR and L&D people shy away from discussing, and instead they offer a substitute training in the form of mentoring programmes, but even then your only hope is that you get a mentor who has enough political nous to pass on to you. So, most of us are left in the dark about how to develop our political intelligence. In fact, such is our lack of understanding, we allow the stories of villains in the workplace like Gordon Gecko, Frank Underwood and Fred Goodwin to stand in for what office politics represents.

But from my own experience working in large organisations, and from my time coaching 100s of individuals, I’ve come to understand that people who undertake dark tactics are at not the norm, and that there is such a thing as healthy mature, office politics.  

If you want to achieve your career goals, you need to develop political skill. You need to learn how to develop leverage to get people to do what you want them to do. In fact, I’d put it to you that unless you do develop political skills and apply them you’ll be doing yourself, your team and your organisation a disservice because you will allow the people with the loudest voices — who do not necessarily have your or the organisations best interests at heart — to set the agenda and run the show. 

I’ve coached middle managers who’ve sat in this layer of management way beyond the time it takes their peers to achieve promotion. They say they don’t do office politics as it’s unethical or unfair. But when we dig deeper the reality is that it’s an excuse to hold themselves back — to stay small and to avoid challenging situations and so they underachieve. This may sound harsh, but given, in many cases, their deep level of knowledge, skills and expertise they are not delivering for themselves, their teams or their organisations. Yet these same managers are working their socks off — only they’re flogging themselves silly by concentrating only on the task. 

Golf — office politics — becomes key…

When we first start our careers, our sole focus is on the task — the work. So at this point, your ability to perform your job role and meet your responsibilities is the most important element. But as you progress, so meetings and also travel take more time, and you need to start delivering through others. Now, when you enter senior management and leadership roles, what do you think becomes key to success? The answer… Golf. Or rather relationship building, networking and office politics — essentially you’re being paid to influence.

Being able to negotiate, influence, engage, convince, and persuade others is how things get done in organisations — and how organisations decide what’s worth doing at all. The higher up your organisation you progress, the more critical office politics becomes. 

An MD of a FTSE 250 company told me: 

“You need performance first and foremost. This is the bedrock because you can always fall back on it if you mess up elsewhere. Office politics is not a substitute for doing a bad job.  In fact, when someone is incompetent and they can’t perform their day job, they’re more likely to turn to underhand, Machiavellian tactics — but people are awake to these tactics and it’s one way to get yourself a bad name.”  

This MD went on to say that success is down to performance, and to be seen to be performing by the right people. 

Success = performance + being seen to perform by the right people 

So, for him office politics requires self promotion — knowing who to impress and showing them what a great job you’re doing because leaving that to your boss alone is too risky.  

Effective office politics is not only required for the good of your own health and career, but also for the benefit of your team and your organisation. And that you can undertake office politics in a perfectly ethical and productive way.

To develop political IQ, you need to develop three skills and apply these: 

  1. Astuteness: You need to be able to accurately assess situations or people and turn this to your advantage. To do this you need to be able to read others, read your organisation and its culture, and just as importantly, be able to read yourself. You need to understand how you’re perceived, and how this might be affecting your progress. 
  1. Strategy: Once you’ve made these assessments, then you need to develop a strategy based on clear goals. And the ability to execute this strategy effectively requires you to use…
  1. An excellent reputation: A network of people with influence and, critically, these people have to perceive you as someone with a good reputation — in other words, they trust you to deliver and have the organisation’s best interests at heart. 

Office politics is present in every organisation and developing good political skill is vital. But like any other skill, office politics requires know-how and practice, and if you’re serious about getting ahead, you need to develop your political nous. In my online course, How to Engage & Influence Stakeholders through Ethical Office Politics there are 17 modules, including how to network effectively, how to build trust, how to deal with bullies, how to counter Machiavellian tactics used by others, as well as several case studies showing what to do and what not to.

Best regards

Peter Willis, tutor and co-founder, unchainyourbrain.org

 

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  1. I do agree, you never see courses in the workplace about office politics. I guess that’s because the words office politics are dirty words, but you are right – if you ignore office politics you won’t progress. I prefer what you say that it’s really just about engaging and influencing key stakeholders.

    Reply
    • Yes, ‘Office politics’ are the words used by those who ignore peer and stakeholder management – i.e. those that lose out to colleagues who are engaging and influencing stakeholders. When I’m coaching others and people don’t want to engage in office politics, one of the first things I do is to work with my client to rephrase it – most prefer ‘influencing others’.

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