Having been a HR Director for years before starting my consulting business, I stopped saying ‘nothing surprises me’ sometime in 2006, just because it seemed like it was courting disaster. Unless you’re a solopreneur, the workplace is a study in human behavior; the good, the bad, and the downright evil. Between my own experiences (and, unfortunately, mis-steps) and the things I’ve learned from my employer clients and my job-searching clients, I’ve come up with some pretty sure-fire methods for avoiding the worst of the politics and some reminders to keep yourself sane if you’re in a particularly aversive environment.
1) The mic is always on…
If you’ve ever thought you were on mute and weren’t, or hit reply ‘all’ accidentally and this caused panic, if not terror, then this advice might serve you well. The best course of action to conduct oneself appropriately in the workplace is to assume there is a hidden microphone at all times and that everyone can hear everything you say. In most workplaces, of course, this isn’t true, but pretend it is, and you may avoid a lot of needless drama.
2) Don’t pick teams
This is tough, as it seems like we’re wired for a tribe mentality, but if at all possible, avoid picking sides in office political wars. The higher up the food chain the wars go, the safer it is for you to stay completely out of it. We’ve all had that boss who’s promised us a job for life if only we support him in his latest coup, but people who play politics for a living are way, way better at it than you likely are. If your boss isn’t playing nice with others it can be tough to stay out of it, but at least try to stay neutral, remember there are many sides to every story, and put the good of the company above all and you’ll do better.
3) Remember who you work for
It can be easy to blame all the problems of a company on your boss, or the company owner, but if you want to be effective and successful in your job, you will avoid lapsing into complaining, resentment or bitterness. The reality is we all have choices. Maybe the company is unethical, or the boss short-sighted, but you’re the one choosing to work there, right? As long as that’s the case, your energy is best spent trying to make the situation as positive as possible, not undermining from within.
4) Don’t participate in gossip
Office life would be easier for absolutely everyone (especially HR practitioners) if we all took this to heart. I like to remind myself that other people’s opinions of me are none of my business. Now, that doesn’t make it less hurtful to find out about an unkind comment, a broken confidence or even a broken promise, but it doesn’t really help you to know about it and it definitely doesn’t help you if you do it to others. Besides just being counterproductive to actually getting work done, it is a rare person indeed who can restrain once they hear something bad about themselves.
5) Keep your resume current
Some cultures are just toxic, and when it comes from the top down, there won’t be much you can do to change it no matter how hard you try, so it’s best to be prepared for the worst (best?) and/or actively be looking for a new workplace. Your resume is your most important marketing tool, so don’t wait to keep it updated. It also is a good psychological reminder that your current gig is NOT the only job in town, no matter how it feels. If you are feeling trapped in a job or culture that is anathema to you, having a current, awesome resume will do wonders to help you empower yourself to take the next step.
In summary, wherever there are more than two people, there will be politics of a sort, but a large part of our experience is determined by our own behavior. Playing to ‘win’ by stabbing others in the back, or using other Machiavellian tactics may bring short term success but the reality is at the end of the day you want to be able to look yourself in the eye in the mirror and be okay with yourself. And even if you are able to engage in dirty politics and be okay with yourself, the people around you most likely won’t be. We all know that someone who talks about other people is probably talking about us, too, so at the end of the day, using gossip, slander and double-dealing won’t get you as far ahead as you might think. If taking the high road keeps you at the bottom of the heap in your company, you might just be in the wrong company for you, so don’t be afraid to explore your options.