THE OFFICE POLITICS PLAYBOOK
You can be a skilled career strategist without alienating colleagues or alarming your boss. Master these self-serving moves to get ahead.
How to Distance Yourself from a Tanking Boss
Your team's numbers are down, but your boss is still taking two-hour lunches. The intelligence is that the ax is about to fall on him. Your challenge: Maintain the appearance of loyalty while shoring up your relationships with his bosses. "Link yourself to projects that will give you a reputation apart from your boss's," says Louellen Essex, a leadership consultant. While you wait for the inevitable regime change, take advantage of working for a managerial Titanic. As Marie G. McIntyre, author of Secrets to Winning at Office Politics, says, "You may be able to assume additional responsibilities, and slacker bosses often offer much more autonomy."
How to Form an Office Alliance
Conventional wisdom says the workplace is an every-man-for-himself environment. That may be true, but sometimes, to get your best work noticed, it helps to have a colleague sing your praises. Just don't recruit your doppelgänger. "What you're looking for are people who see things differently," says John McBride, the group strategy director for Translation, a marketing company. When it's obvious that you're kindred spirits, your ally's compliments can seem cliqueish. But if your office foil touts you as God's gift, the story becomes more compelling. All you have to do is be willing to occasionally play the president of your ally's fan club. "It's all about the win-win," McBride says.
How to Confront Your Office Nemesis
There comes a point—maybe several points—in every career when you can no longer avoid facing your office enemy. Ripping him apart via e-mail, as satisfying as it may be, isn't the way to go. "Hold the conversation on neutral turf—over coffee, over lunch—and maintain professionalism," says Dennis Kelley, an executive leadership coach. "Don't leave until you both understand each other's point of view." And if your nemesis refuses to accept repeated invitations to clear the air and continues to pose a threat to your standing in the office, start a file. "Anytime you have either a political or personal situation in the office and you have any kind of proof or documentation, that's information that you can hold on to if you ever have to back up your side of the story," Kelley says. It may prove decisive in the event of a final showdown (see "How to Exercise the Nuclear Option" below). "Go to someone in the organization that can help you," Kelley says. "Either your boss or HR or someone who can give you advice in a confidential manner."
How to Exercise the Nuclear Option
A human-resources expert would probably advise you never to take direct aim at a coworker. But if someone in the office is deliberately imperiling your status, failing to respond to direct communication about his actions, and, say, potentially endangering your company's reputation, playing tattletale is necessary. But make sure you're in touch with your motives. "Only do it when it's not personal," says J.P. Mastey, president of the grooming company Baxter of California. "If you come to the boss with an issue that involves personality problems or jealousy and disguise it as a work issue, you may be creating an undesirable profile for yourself." Also: Be sure you're on solid footing. Don't make the move unless you're confident that your own performance has been stellar—and that management thinks so too. In any case, it's safe to rat someone out only when you can make a reasonable argument that they could ultimately hurt the company as a whole—not just impede your upward mobility. Approach your boss with a statement along the lines of "I think it's best for the team if you know this." And be prepared for disappointment—there's a chance your target could stay put, without so much as a reprimand.
How to Go Over Someone's Head
Here's the scenario: Your boss repeatedly fails to take your suggestion for what to do about a particular problem. You're sure your idea would provide a brilliant solution; it also might set you up for a promotion. Prepare to go directly to his boss. "Don't say 'I have this great idea my boss thought was stupid,'" says Brad Karsh, a consultant. Instead, bring the issue up casually and tell him your plan. When you're confronted later about the leapfrogging, emphasize the words casual conversation. Whatever you do, don't let your fear of discomfort keep you from acting. "I've never had any reservations about going over a superior's head," says Brett Kimmel, a divorce attorney. "Nobody in the organization is going to be served by your sitting on your hands." The bigger boss will respect you more for it.
How to Recover from a Political Screwup
Even if you're playing the game right, active participation in office politics is never risk-free. "Any strategy can backfire," says Ben Dattner, a management consultant and adjunct professor at New York University. That means a move as innocent as having drinks with a colleague to untangle a mis-communication can ding your reputation. "In an organization that embraces stereotypes and scapegoating," Dattner says, "sometimes trying to resolve a situation only makes it worse." The key to recovering from a fumble isn't scrambling—it's having the fortitude to sit tight. "Whatever your problem," Dattner says, "you're not going to solve it overnight." That strategy's advisable even when you've botched a tricky move like, say, leaking a rumor that you're being poached—just explain the situation calmly to whoever asks you about it. And unless you're the Office CNN, don't spread gossip about yourself in the first place. As Jean Center, a management consultant, says, "Above all, you really don't want anyone to doubt your commitment."