I work in a very politically charged environment. A colleague you consider a friend can often turn out to be the person back-stabbing you. I find all the politics exhausting and struggle to trust those around me. How can I adapt and, in turn, develop in such a workplace? LK, Sharjah
Unfortunately office politics are common in most workplaces. Yet some environments, such as yours, are more politically charged than others. I am frequently asked by clients to help them navigate the maze of office politics and strategic alliances. In some companies a GPS system is needed just to find your way around the subculture and identify the key players; identifying who you need to align yourself with and who you should avoid.
Most people say that they would rather not get involved and try their best to avoid it like a disease. But just by being in the office you are automatically a part of the games, as a passive victim or as a skilled player. It can be a draining environment to work in, let alone to thrive and succeed.
To rise above such a toxic environment, you need to think strategically about the part that you play and start managing the situation. I am not suggesting you become part of the back-stabbing or gossiping, but by remaining a bystander you could become an unintentional victim of the rumours and power games. You need to proactively manage them.
Let’s start by “reframing” your attitude towards politics from being a negative, dirty word to a more positive and productive skill required to function in everyday organisational life. Substitute the words “playing politics” for “building networks” and you will begin to view things differently, and even use them to your advantage.
The next thing to do is to realise you have a choice in all political situations. A fight or flight response, although instinctive, will not support you in these complex environments. To survive and ultimately win at these games, you must consciously choose how you deal with a situation. No matter how difficult the circumstances, you always have a choice on how you respond. My suggestion is you move from reacting to the political behaviour of others to skilfully and proactively managing these situations.
To manage office politics in a proactive way and build a network, you must start by really getting to know your organisational environment, identify who you need as allies to be successful and list your “web of influence”. Identify people you can trust and who will support you in delivering your priorities, and also those who cannot. When thinking about who you need to build relationships with, do not just go on seniority. For example, it could be the secretary of the chief financial officer who is the real influencer or gatekeeper, and therefore someone you need to focus on engaging with.
I would also suggest that in political situations you focus only on the aspects you have control over. Look at current and potential relationships and think about your circle of influence. It is not uncommon to find corporate policies, client demands or senior management mandates affecting your personal interests and your relationships with others. When things come from above, it is easy to do nothing or complain to others. Instead, I would suggest you take responsibility for what you can control in these situations.
Think to yourself, other than a short-term emotional outlet, what would complaining or blaming others achieve? Instead think about everything you can do to influence the situation and those involved in it. You may not be able to change the outcome of a new policy, but you can do your best, within your power, to ensure that you are working with people who respond to you rather than working against you. Equally, there will be some colleagues who you can voice your concerns openly with; others you cannot. In any organisational environment always be aware of who you can and cannot trust.
A political environment where you feel that you do not know who to trust requires skill and strategy to navigate through and succeed in. Embrace and adapt to the environment you find yourself in, rather than reacting or resisting. Approach situations with a positive mindset and you will find that you are able to play the game, rather than being played yourself.
Alex Davda is a business psychologist and consultant at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, and is based in the Middle East. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org for advice on any work issues.
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