Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
Politics is pretty much a part of any office environment. Office politics can be merely annoying, but sometimes it becomes so intense that the whole place can feel downright toxic.
I once worked in an organization that was a “culture of blame,” in which everyone was perfectly cordial with each other until a problem occurred, and then the finger-pointing, some subtle and some not so subtle, began. Other organizations have their own special brand of office politics. These might include rewarding “Type A” aggressive behavior or emphasizing teamwork to an extent that employees resort to manipulation and sneakiness in an attempt to have their individual contributions recognized. Office politics can come in all kinds of forms.
Office politics may emerge when an event occurs. People may work together just fine until it’s time for a reorganization, or a round of layoffs. Then the claws can come out as employees who feel most at risk, or are most averse to change, adopt an “every person for themself” attitude and jockey for position.
Living with a chronic condition? Office politics can be especially challenging.
Office politics can have a special meaning for someone who is living with a chronic condition. In fact, it comes up often in conversations with my clients. Here are two examples:
A client I’ll call Curt holds a responsible position in his company. His chronic condition has at times required temporary accommodations, include working from home, so his coworkers are well aware of his situation. Recently, he and a coworker were in competition for a position at the next level up. In a meeting with an executive, his coworker made a point of asking Curt how he was feeling and offering his assistance if he needed it.
“I was feeling just fine and he knew that,” Curt said to me. “He was only trying to plant a seed of doubt with one of the key decision-makers. I couldn’t believe he would do that to me.”
Another client, Betty, has at times felt like an outsider in her work group. Her coworkers are actively involved in a bowling league, something she is not able to participate in due to her chronic condition. The department manager is a member of the team. On their bowling night, they talk about what’s going on at work and even make group decisions that she does not have any input into. This is disappointing to her, but she has learned to live with it. Recently, though, that became more difficult.
“Last week,” she said, “they went out after they finished bowling and had a conversation about workflow. They ended up coming up with a whole new way of getting our work done.” Betty shrugged her shoulders. “Looks like I am going to need to start work a half hour earlier to do the role I got assigned. With traffic, I’m going to need to leave home even earlier. I need my rest. But that’s what the bowling league decided. The friends took care of each other, and I’m not a friend.”
Now, what about you? If you’ve ever been a member of any workplace, you can probably discuss the office politics you faced there. Chances are you either found a way to survive, or even thrive, in the political environment of your office—or you are still stinging from it.
To call office politics challenging is an understatement. Here are some ideas to help you with the politics at your office:
Accept. As disappointing as that may feel. Whether you like it or not. We all like to think the absolute best of people. I sure do, and I am sure you do too. But organizations can sometimes bring out the worst in people, especially if they are insecure. And organizations all too often develop a culture that, for better or worse, gets perpetuated from executive management on down. Just plain old accepting the politics in your office is the beginning step toward coping.
Accepting things as they are is a lot less stressful than trying to stay in denial.
Hold on to your values. I think it is important to always keep your own personal values—your work ethic, how you want to be treated, how you want to treat others—top of mind. This is especially important as you decide what kind of person you want to be in your organization from the perspective of office politics. As Shakespeare said, “To thine own self be true.”
Assess what the political environment means for you. Be realistic. I am not suggesting that you need to turn into a game player, out to get everybody who stands in the way of your next promotion. Not at all. But I do think that success in your job is, for better or worse, more than simply doing excellent work. Define for yourself what the political environment at your organization is like. Keep an eye out for not only what people do to advance themselves, but also what they do to protect themselves. This doesn’t mean you have to use them as role models if what they do goes against your values. But being aware can help you to avoid being damaged by office politics.
Go with the flow. Start by being aware of your own values. Ask yourself, “What can I do to take care of myself, and to excel, in this political environment?” You don’t have to strategize on how to best ambush a coworker at the next staff meeting. But it might mean being extra careful to show that you are being a team player. Making sure you include the right people as email recipients, including your boss. Not to mention thinking twice, or three times, before you actually send that email. Or it might mean signing up for a committee you might not actually be all that interested in. That’s called going along to get along. And it’s important at your workplace.
Manage up. The person you most need to be in sync with is your manager. So be aware of the best way to communicate with him or her. Be transparent about what you are working on. Don’t wait to be asked. If you come to your manager with a problem, also bring a couple of potential solutions. Offer to help out when you see an opportunity. Keep in mind that a big part of your job is to make your manager successful. And let’s be honest, if you’re managing up well, your boss is also more likely to protect you if you get caught up in a political storm. While you’re at it, you might want to ask your boss to be your mentor. Or find someone else in the organization who can.
Be compassionate. People are people. Insecure. Territorial. Gossipy. Everybody has a story. The most political people at work are often the most damaged. That doesn’t mean you should allow yourself to be manipulated or walked on, but it does mean that their behavior may not be personal. People bring their childhood demons to work with them and try to work them out with their coworkers. It’s sad. And having some compassion can help you to be less prone to judgment and anger.
Have a sense of humor. Sometimes it can help to just roll your eyes and say, “Whatever.” And then to have a good laugh. Like the next time a coworker grandstands in an email about how they saved the company from the brink of bankruptcy. It’s annoying, but it didn’t hurt you, right?
Get lots of support. And I mean lots. Talk. Vent. Yelp loudly if you need to. Have friends or family who are willing to listen to what you encountered at work that day. Let it out and you won’t have it bouncing around in your head all night. And you will be less likely to come into work the next day expecting to be annoyed or primed for a confrontation.
Know your rights. And advocate for yourself. Increasingly, organizations have resources in place to assist with diversity issues, bullying, and accommodations for employees who need them. Be aware of your rights at your workplace, including any that pertain to your chronic condition. Know who to call if you need help and what you can expect.
You, your job, and office politics. Your chronic condition may leave you feeling at a disadvantage when life at the office gets political. Be aware of the politics at your workplace. But also stay aware of your personal work values. Choose your own best way forward.
What kinds of office politics have you dealt with where you work? Add a comment below to tell us what happened.