Office Politics

Jul 10, 1995

If you talked with as many people in A/E/P and environmental consulting firms as I have over the years, you would soon discover that “office politics” is a dirty term in our industry. Engineers, architects, and scientists frequently complain that the firms they work for are “too political,” and that the only way to get the resources they need or to move up in the organization is by politicking with higher-ups. These complainers will whine that “The company doesn’t value technical skills,” “The company doesn’t reward long-term service,” or “The company doesn’t care what I have to say (about the business),” and “only `good talkers’ get anywhere in the company.” Then when they see someone in the organization who does get promoted, who gets the tools he needs to do his job better, or whose opinion is sought out by management, they claim it’s because “so-and-so is a big brown-noser.” They’ll go on to say that all the good things that happen to so-and-so are because he (or she) goes out to lunch with the boss/plays tennis with the boss/has the boss over to dinner/talks with the boss regularly. All of these activities are then slotted under the broad category catch-phrase of “office politics.” But the fact is, there’s nothing inherently wrong with politicking. When I was an employee in two A/E/P and environmental firms earlier in my career, I was super political. Anyone who knew me then will tell you that. And I’m not at all ashamed of it. Here’s why, in any organization of 10 or more people, politicking is essential: You have to have personal relationships with the higher-ups so they’ll trust you to do your job. Let’s face it, when you start out with a firm, or get a new job in a company, how you’ll perform is an unknown. If you want to be left alone and allowed to implement the necessary changes to improve your area of responsibility, you have to be trusted. A good personal relationship is the foundation of trust. And to have that, you have to spend time talking with the other person (or people). Meals are good times to talk. So is an after-work drink. And maybe they (the higher-ups or even your peer group) will trust you more if their spouse likes you (and your spouse). Social activities are a chance to form these relationships. At some point, you’ll probably need money or other resources to do your job. In any organization with a finite amount of resources (i.e., all organizations), there will be competition for the dollars, computers, office space, people, marketing support, or whatever. If you— as a principal or manager of an office, a department, a team, a division, or a support area— want to come out on the winning end of that competition, you’ll probably need to influence those controlling the resources so someone else doesn’t claim them first. Politicking is a good way to do that. You don’t want any barriers to your own advancement in the company. “Out of sight, out of mind” is an adage we’ve all heard. And it sure is appropriate when you start talking about how bonus money is doled out and promotions are granted in the typical A/E/P or environmental consulting firm! Sure— in a Utopian firm environment, there would be all kinds of channels for people to communicate, and tangible evidence of what individuals actually accomplish flowing to all. But that’s not the way it works for 98% of the companies in this business. It’s especially critical for people working in far-flung branch offices (or even deep corners of a large office) to meet and interact with high level people in the organization. You have to get the attention of those beyond your immediate supervisor to move up. This should not be your primary reason to be political— self-interest should always be subordinated to the best interests of the firm overall. But to ignore this reality is either very foolish or very naive. Politics are particularly critical for those working in staff roles (as opposed to line functions), because it’s harder for those people to produce tangible evidence of what they have done or the benefits of what they want to do. Ditto for those working in multi-owner firms where there is no clear-cut leader. No doubt— playing office politics may take time away from whatever your primary job function is. Taken to an extreme and in the sole pursuit of self-interest, politics can be harmful. But played appropriately, office politics may be the way to become quickly effective in whatever role you take on. And that’s good for the company and for you. Originally published 7/10/1995

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