Politics at work

Get real

When you are starting out at work you are innocent about the workplace, and probably have little sense of the politics at work. But politics are important.

I’m going to use Brandon & Seldman’s definition of politics at work as “the informal, unofficial, and sometimes behind-the–scenes efforts to sell ideas, influence organisations, increase power or achieve other objectives”

Politics is always an issue in any organisation. If there are just two people in an organisation, things usually sort themselves out on a pecking order basis.

As organisations get bigger, they get more complicated, and power bases are not so clear-cut.

Inevitably in the organisation you have just started working for there is a political aspect to the business that you don’t know about (yet).

Because you are a new starter that doesn’t mean that you can ignore the politics at work. Because one way or another you will be drawn into issues that are not about work, but about power.

Let’s do a quick check on your understanding of politics at work.

How many of the following statements are false?

1. Politics won’t affect me – I’m a new starter.
2. Politics is just gossiping, it’s harmless.
3. If I work hard and keep my head down and out of politics I’ll be OK. 4. Companies always try to keep their best workers.
5. People who play politics to get ahead always come to a sticky end.
6. Politics is just “brownnosing”.
7. Some people are just naturally good at networking and getting ahead. 8. Good workers will always rise to the top.
9. I don’t need to toot my own horn - my work speaks for itself.
10. My reputation doesn’t depend on work politics.

In fact ALL of them are false, and we’ll explain why, and why this is important to you as a new starter.

Will politics affect me?

You will be affected. When you start your new job, you’ll probably find that the workplace has its various cliques, friendships, and informal and formal ways of working. You’ll find that all the bosses are not equal – and that the pecking order may not be the same as the organisation chart. So what are you to make of all this, and more importantly, how is this going to impact on your reputation?

Let’s look at the other questions, so we’re clear what work politics is all about.

Politics is just gossiping, it doesn’t do any harm

Politics is all about using words, mostly talking but it would be a big mistake to think that it does not do any harm. Most people think of politics in a negative way. You shouldn’t do that. Instead accept that people work in a political way, and Baddeley and James (1987) describe 4 types of workers in any workplace as far as politics is concerned.

1. The sheep 2. The owl 3. The donkey 4. The fox

The sheep is the person who is a good worker, keeps their head down, acts always with integrity, and is innocent to the possibilities, positive and negative of the political aspect of work.

The owl is the solid worker, who understands the office organisation and how to get things done. The owl always acts with integrity, only dealing with truths and always with fairness.

The donkey is the person who is not such a good worker, but they play the game. They gossip, putting down their co-workers to try and get promotion for themselves. They play politics in the sense of promoting themselves at every opportunity, often for work they have not done.

The fox is focused on himself. He sees every issue as an opportunity to improve his position. He does
not act with integrity. If it’s a choice between what’s good for him, and what’s right for the company, then he will do what’s good for him, but presented as good for the company. The fox is well connected in the organisation and only acts when he has done his homework, made many checks, and planned the outcome.

Which one do you think you are? Which one would you like to be?

If I work hard and keep my head down and out of politics I’ll be OK

‘Fraid not. By doing this, you’re putting yourself forward for being one of the first to be sacked when a downturn happens. Why? Because your boss won’t have much of an idea of how good a worker you are. But more importantly, you have not built up any alliances in the organisation to protect you. More about this later. But be aware that it is in your interest to have supporters (I’ll not call them friends, because these supporters are based on your professional attitude).

As a new starter, you have probably never had to promote yourself. You may be embarrassed at the ides of standing up in front of your team and saying, “This is the problem that I saw with the job, and this is what I did to fix it.” It’s a skill you will have to learn. Let’s face it, if you don’t stick up for yourself, no one else will.

So when you are working in your first job think about:

• What am I known for?

What does the boss think of me? Am I seen as a “shy loner”, or as the “site larrikin” or the office “party girl”, or a “friendly hard worker” , what perception do my boss and co-workers have of me?

• What have I achieved?

Perhaps start to keep a diary, a record of what you have learnt and questions that you may have about your first job. Start to think about how to communicate this to the boss. Look for opportunities to let the boss know that you are working hard at being a new starter.

• Who am I associated with – the “good guys” or the “bad guys”

Do I regularly have lunch with the same group? Is this group the factory “stars” or “donkeys.” What about conversations? Who do I regularly talk to? Is it the boss, or do I communicate to the boss through a co- worker? If so, how can I be sure that the boss is getting the right picture of what I am doing at work?

Businesses always try to keep their best workers

Companies say this, but it doesn’t happen in practice, for several reasons. Remember earlier I mentioned that it’s just as important how you do the job, as the result itself. Let’s take the case of someone who always gets the job done, but upsets everyone by their manner. What do you think happens to people who isolate themselves by ignoring their co-workers’ feelings while they get the job done?

If you isolate yourself, you’ll soon find that your co-workers are keeping you out of the loop and your reputation as a good worker is lost: your reputation becomes
“someone who is difficult to work with” or even worse, no one wants to work

with you and you may consider leaving.

People who “play” politics to get ahead always come to a sticky end

People who play politics are “foxes” and while it might appeal to your sense of justice that they will get found out eventually, I’m afraid that doesn’t happen very often. You see foxes are bright. They are well connected. They know what is going on in the business, where the opportunities and threats are, and they keep ahead of the game. Although they are always out for themselves, they are wise enough to appear to be helping the team and the business.

Politics is just “brownnosing”

Politics has become a nasty word, and people do confuse it with sucking up to the boss. But politics is an important part of the way work is done in the business. As the definition says, sometimes it’s the behind – the-scenes exchange of thoughts and ideas that shape the company.

Some people are just naturally good at networking and getting ahead

Most new starters are not confident in their first job. It’s quite normal to be a bit stunned by the new work environment and it generally takes weeks, months before you will have the confidence to reach out to others to form a work network.

Unless you are naturally an extrovert, you will find it hard to engage with people in the work environment. At school or university it is easier to create a network of contacts for many reasons; in education the people you are engaging with are of same age group and interests, same goals, etc. But at work there is a whole community to deal with. So how to establish a network of contacts?

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but very difficult to do when you are young, and your feelings may get hurt when others don’t respond. Alternatively you may be having a bad day yourself, and the last thing you want to do is smile to strangers at work. But persevere, don’t give up, be known as the person who has always a smile to start the day.

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here?”The obvious reply is “I work here.”
But that reply would mark you down as a bit of a donkey. So have something ready that shows you are keen.

Something like:

“I just started last week working for Charlie Brown, and I’m in the marketing group. It’s great I’m helping Charlie get a few posters together to try and kick start a new idea that he has. It’s very exciting. I love it.”

􏰀 􏰢􏰄􏰊􏰈􏰑 􏰇􏰆􏰈 􏰘􏰄􏰕􏰕􏰗􏰆􏰋􏰘􏰇􏰖􏰋􏰄􏰆􏰑 􏰌􏰋􏰚􏰃 􏰖􏰒􏰇􏰖 􏰈􏰄􏰆􏰝􏰖 􏰘􏰄􏰕􏰃 􏰃􏰇􏰑􏰍 􏰖􏰄 􏰇 􏰆􏰃􏰐 􏰑􏰖􏰇􏰊􏰖􏰃􏰊􏰎 􏰣􏰄 􏰇􏰔􏰇􏰋􏰆􏰓 􏰡􏰤􏰊􏰇􏰘􏰖􏰋􏰘􏰃􏰓 􏰤􏰊􏰇􏰘􏰖􏰋􏰘􏰃􏰓


Good workers will always rise to the top

Not so. If you think about any large business, the person in the top office is rarely the best worker. In Ford motor company for example, do you really think that the CEO is the best person to construct a car? No
of course not, because the CEO needs different skills. Well, let’s stay with this imaginary best car assembly worker. Do you think that he would become the head of the factory making cars? Probably not, again because we know different skills are required at that level too.

OK what about this imaginary worker who is really good at putting cars together – do you think he would be the best team leader of the car assemblers?

Maybe, but maybe not, because again you need to be a leader, and a leader always requires “political” skills.

I don’t need to toot my own horn - my work speaks for itself

As we said above. keeping your abilities out of the limelight is not going to cut it. If you are lucky your co- workers might talk well of you, but rarely will co-workers suggest that you should advance ahead of them.

If you are really lucky your boss may show an interest and acknowledge your achievement and take you under his wing.

More likely your co-workers will have a sense of the pecking order and you, as a new starter, don’t get to change that.

More likely your boss will be busy, and have several people reporting to him, so your issues are not likely to be high on his attention list.

So either accept that your abilities remain unrecognised, or take an effort to promote yourself.

My reputation doesn’t depend on work politics

Your most important asset will depend on what people say (and write) about you. Some of your reputation will be built up from first-hand experience where your immediate boss and co-workers will be making judgements and statements about you based on their dealings with you. Things like “Jill is ready for a pay rise, she does good work” or “Jack is doing great things in the workshop, and we should be sending him off to TAFE for more qualifications.”

All of these statements about Jack and Jill will come to nothing unless there is a network of people to act on them.

Office politics and perceptions


“Perception is reality” someone once said. What they mean is that it doesn’t really matter whether Joe is a really nice bloke or not, if people perceive Joe to be a really scary individual, then that is what Joe is.

For example, let’s say Joe is a really big burly chap, always dresses in dirty black clothes, big long beard, long hair, metal rings in nose, tattoos everywhere, a permanent threatening scowl on his face, and never talks to anyone at work. Now Joe may be the nicest guy on the planet, but he is going to have his work cut out to change people’s perception of him.

Let’s also say that Joe is a teenager, and is going through that rebellious stage that all teenagers do, then Joe has a problem. He has either to accept that he will be judged (wrongly) for his appearance, which causes people to perceive him as something he is not, or Joe can accept the world for what it is and change his appearance, and therefore people’s perception.

Of course, if he feels strongly that his appearance is part of his identity, then he will continue to be misjudged.

But don’t expect that the world will change. We all have perceptions based on appearances.
Even teenagers make assumptions based on appearances, so don’t blame the grown-ups if they do it too! Oral

The way you talk affects your work prospects. I’m not talking about accents. That aspect of speech has changed enormously over the years. It used to be the case that to work on TV or radio, you had to have a BBC voice: basically an accent from the home counties in England. Not true anymore and we hear many different accents in the media.

I’m referring to how your talk reflects your thinking.

• Do you speak clearly or do you “um” and “ah”?
• Do you speak up when talking to your boss, or do you mumble to your chin?
• Do you ramble on in your conversations?
• Have you a reasonable vocabulary – do you struggle to find the right words? • Are you able to express yourself clearly?
• Have you a confident voice when speaking to a group?


Work will always involve writing; even in this electronic age, writing is important for several reasons.

• You can waffle on when you are talking: it’s a lot more difficult when you have to commit something to paper/ email
• Writing should make your thoughts clearer
• Writing gives you a chance to frame your thoughts, in a way that talking doesn’t

• “Did I really say that” is something you’ll often hear at work. If the boss has put his instructions in writing there’s no argument – it’s there in black and white. However if he spoke the words, then the message is more complicated, because speaking the words is one thing, the next thing is you hearing them, and then converting them into thoughts in your brain. So there is plenty of opportunity for the message to get garbled. Not so easy with the written word.

So speaking and writing are important tools in work politics. In your work life you will meet inspirational bosses who have a great way with words and can talk to an ordinary team and make them a great team. Likewise you will meet the not so good. Learn from both and improve your skills.

Work stories

Brownnosing or self-promotion?

It’s worthwhile spending a bit more time on this issue. New starters can have a great deal of difficulty with this. I’ve found that the problem begins where the new starter has an (incorrect) picture in their head on what work recognition should be.

It usually concerns fairness and justice.

As a new starter, your experience of the world has been limited to a system that is well regulated. You do your work, hand it in, the teacher grades your result, and explains where you lost marks.

That doesn’t happen at work.
Let’s look at a number of regularly seen work situations. Case 1

You do your work diligently. You work at the office for 12 months. You never get any feedback, and you are too shy to ask for any, so you assume that everyone is happy with what you are doing.

There is a performance review at the end of 12 months. The boss tells you at the review that your work is not up to scratch and you are being let go.
You are devastated.

Case 2

You do your work diligently, you have been working at the workshop for 12 months and you are told that you are doing OK.

At the annual performance review you are told while your work is OK you don’t “fit in” and you are being let go.

Case 3

You do your work diligently, you have been working at the factory for 12 months and you have made a few employee suggestions that have been taken up. You’ve been told that you are doing OK. At the performance review, you are told that next year is not looking good, and they are letting people go. The company is keeping Bill (who has taken the credit for your ideas) and letting you go.

What do all these cases have in common?
You are to blame for these outcomes. That may sound a bit harsh, but it’s true because:

• You didn’t build up your network in the organisation to find out what was going on • You didn’t promote yourself
• You allowed Bill to take the credit for your work