Surviving the New Office Politics

In tough times, paranoia and gossip are rampant in the workplace. Here's how to navigate the playing field and come out on top.


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."

Colleagues 101

The shared goal in any office is to get ahead, and everyone has a different strategy. Below, a field guide to six operators, from the apolitical type to the gossip, and how to use them to your advantage.


Who: Because of something he actually did—like having an affair with a woman who reports to him—or maybe just because he can't touch the fax machine without its falling apart, this guy has been put on Office Death Watch. Everyone (possibly including him) expects that he'll be terminated any day now—but you still have to work with him.

Signature Move: The pity party. Kryptonite wants a friend; he e-mails to ask why he wasn't invited to lunch with the rest of the staff, lurks outside meetings he was excluded from, and rounds up companions for cigarette breaks to commiserate.

Achilles Heel: That last iota of hope he harbors

Best Defense: Total avoidance. Pretend you didn't get his e-mails, and don't let anyone see you leaving the office with him. Even a sympathy drink will put you in danger of sucking by association.

Known Associates: None

Threat Level: medium


Who: This type may share an alma mater with the CEO or just have a chemistry with him that no one can fathom or duplicate. Regardless, he can come in late, botch the big account, and sit lifelessly in meetings, and the boss will still promote him.

Signature Move: The name-drop. In order to ensure that even the freshly minted intern knows his status, he takes every opportunity to reference the boss—often apropos of nothing: "Speaking of the Olympics, the big guy swam in high school."

Achilles Heel: Zero safety net. When the boss takes a keen interest in the new guy, the Untouchable could easily lose the Golden Boy mantle.

Best Defense: Paranoia-mongering. Make sure he's the first to know when his superior takes another coworker out for a one-on-one lunch.

Known Associates: The Underminer, who buddies up with him hoping some of the shine will rub off.

Threat Level: medium


Who: This guy remains neutral at all times—even when the boss himself indulges in an office-gossip session or when everyone's talking about how the Untouchable slips out for midday massages.

Signature Move: Controversy avoidance. For instance, when the boss asks if a coworker has been coming in late recently, he says, "I haven't noticed." And when someone notes, rightly, "Johnson really dropped the ball on that," he responds, "Hmm. I wasn't really paying close attention."

Achilles Heel: A backlash. Always finding something nice to say about the one person everyone loathes can not only lead to peer resentment but make the boss doubt the existence of one's balls.

Best Defense: A good offense. Be just as irritatingly passive. "Forget" to seek his input; he'll either start showing his cards or become persona non grata.

Known Associates: Everyone

Threat Level: low


Who: Harnessing the power of negativity, he uses passive-aggressive behavior and backhanded remarks to make colleagues look bad. While he weakens the morale of the group, the boss sees him as merely an outspoken maverick.

Signature Move: Playing devil's advocate. He'll wait until your proposal is all but approved before encouraging the person in charge to reconsider it, using strategically timed comments like "Are we sure this doesn't need more research?"

Achilles Heel: Taking it too far. Adopting an overly contrarian attitude is like slapping a bull's-eye on yourself.

Best Defense: A Miss Congeniality–grade smile. Even if your natural impulse is to fight fire with fire, be as pleasant as you can—or just ignore him.

Known Associates: The Ambitious New Guy (see "The Next Generation of Office Politicians")

Threat Level: high


Who: This is the high-ranking person who isn't white, isn't a man, or isn't heterosexual. The red flag: an aggrieved look when you do anything other than back him up in front of management.

Signature Move: Making you look intolerant. After you say "Think you can handle this project?" he wonders—aloud—if you're questioning his abilities because he's a minority. You drop it and take on the work you were going to delegate to him.

Achilles Heel: Playing the card a time too many; management will get defensive if wrongly portrayed as fostering an intolerant environment.

Best Defense: Confidence. Never make self-protective statements like "I didn't mean it like that." Take your cue from the Office Switzerland: Say nothing and adopt a benign expression.

Known Associates: Everyone. The Powerful Minority is—at least publicly—liked by all.

Threat Level: high


Who: Armed with a trust-me face and a network of informants, this person keeps abreast of everyone's professional fate—he knows who's on the verge of a promotion and who's marked for death. Oh, and who's screwing whom. He knows that, too.

Signature Move: The booze 'n' schmooze. CNN pounces after a bad day, when friendly commiseration can easily give way to secret-divulging. He'll rope you in with a nugget of insider knowledge and patiently await your contribution.

Achilles Heel: Too much information. Even the most seasoned propagandist can be tripped up when there's too much gossip to disseminate. There's no such thing as a watercooler retraction.

Best Defense: A bovine look. Marvel at how he "knows everything!" You'll seem like just a receptacle for his secrets—allowing you to keep yours safe.

Known Associates: The Higher-Up's Assistant

Threat Level: low

The Diplomatic F&%!-You

10 ways to stick it to a coworker publicly—without getting your hands dirty.

  1. Loudly, at 6 p.m.: "You leaving early? Man, it's so great you can get away with that."

  2. Preface a remark by saying "With all due respect..."

  3. Take his newly hired subordinate to lunch on his first day.

  4. "Casual Wednesday?"

  5. On a conference call: "That's funny. I thought we went over that last week."

  6. Volunteer to run a meeting he usually runs.

  7. Beat him to the office in the morning and start all conversations with "When Steve gets in..."

  8. In response to an update on which upper management was CC'd: "Please send updates when there's something new to report."

  9. Within earshot of the boss the day after a company happy hour: "How you feeling today?"

  10. BCC.

The Next Generation of Office Politicians

They may not be positioned to angle for your job—yet—but underlings shouldn't be ignored.


She bats her eyelashes at your boss; he asks you to talk to her about her career. The only way to play this one is to keep it strictly professional. Invite her to lunch, but make a show of inviting the male interns, too. The office letch never gets ahead.


You could work him for a good word to his uncle, but the best he'll be able to give you is a family anecdote. Let your coworkers fight over who gets to take him to drinks while you get the boss's respect by treating his nephew like any other entry-level person.


He sends mass e-mails soliciting sponsors for the charity 5K he's running, and you hear your boss express admiration. Pledge the minimum and, at the next staff meeting, remind everyone that company e-mail should be used for work-related communication only.


He's been out of college for five minutes and he already has face time with your boss to discuss his ideas. Offer to mentor him early on—it'll give you the authority to describe him to colleagues as "a good kid, but kind of young."


He spends his afternoons on IM, but when you walk out at 7 p.m., he's still at his desk because "it's just been such a crazy day." Mention that the boss has been complaining about late-night e-mails' interrupting his family time.


If you treat him extra nicely, you might get some inside information. That said, the reality is that he poses no threat to your progress—at the end of the day your superior values only his ability to schedule lunch.


A Guide to Modern Office Etiquette

Who's Spying on You at Work?

Fear at Work

The New Office Saboteurs

It's Time to Get Your Career on Target

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