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Surviving office politics without going mad

Dr. Mohamed A. Ramady

Published: Updated:

Nearly all professional white-collar employees have had to cope with internal office politics that sometimes leads to acute depression, verging on going mad.

In the Gulf, with multi nationalities working together, differences in work ethics and management style adds to this real or imaginary paranoia that becomes detrimental to the efficient working of the organisation.

No amount of written corporate ethics and company policies can overcome the negative effects of internal office politics. In recent European work place surveys, estimated three-quarters of employees say their boss is the most stressful part of their job, while a third dread going to work because of colleagues.

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Similar surveys in the Gulf would probably evidence the same results. So how can employees who really wish to make a successful contribution to their firm navigate, mitigate or deal with office politics?

The problem becomes more acute if one is dealing with truly underhand colleagues. But the reality is there: in most organisations, especially where bosses allow this type of behavior to run rampant, the office setting is one where it even involves backstabbing bosses to co-workers who try to sabotage your work, thus ensuring that relationships and power are tightly knit in the workplace.

A better way to deal with difficult colleagues is to ask them for a private conversation, and calmly ask them why they acted how they did, rather than accusing them

Dr. Mohamed Ramady

Demoted or alienated

Office politics can be either a positive or negative influence on your career. If you aren’t successful in dealing with it, you can lose your job, get demoted or be alienated from key projects or people. If you are successful in dealing with politics, you can gain access to key influential players inside the company and even gain a promotion.

To start with, no one is going to help you but yourself. To fix a toxic work culture, you need to get involved for it is a truism that that when people feel they don’t belong in a group, their physical health and wellbeing plummets. The first step is an obvious one – if one is feeling isolated or excluded by negative office politics, it makes sense to try to make friends.

If one person at work is the main source of conflict, the best way to deal with them is to unite with your co-workers, in effect grouping against a bully. By doing this, it can hopefully contain the bully, who, with their behaviour exposed, loses the power to terrorise – and faces the threat of isolation.

This strategy also works with game-playing colleagues – people with bullying tendencies often try to isolate victims, so the more people you have on your side, the less likely you are to be taken advantage of at work, but this strategy calls for confidence and strong leadership character.

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A major source of office politics is when predator office colleagues poach the hard work of employees. In this case, when you are subject to colleagues’ political tactics – such as taking credit for your work – it’s important not to retaliate.

People are human and it is very tempting to expose the co-worker or boss in front of others, but this can backfire. Be smarter and document your work efforts. This ensures that when documenting your work thoroughly this lets let co-workers and your bosses’ superiors know what you are doing and have done.

This protects your reputation: if colleagues call your work ethic into question, you then have a way to prove your productivity. Another simple advise is not to sink to their underhand level and be above them.

When colleagues try to make you look bad or undermine you, it’s tempting to do likewise. However, this can backfire: you may come across as petty, and is unlikely to change your boss or co-worker’s behaviour, and in fact worsen your position.

Level of frustration

Making others look bad brings work politics to an elevated level of frustration and resentment. Most of the time, you don’t consciously try make someone look bad. However, you can be careless or not aware of the impact of your actions on others.

Actively try to make people look good because this will come back and look favourably on you. If you’re voicing concerns or criticism of your own, be confident and assertive but not aggressive. And make sure that you take an organizational perspective, and not simply a selfish one.

A better way to deal with difficult colleagues is to ask them for a private conversation, and calmly ask them why they acted how they did, rather than accusing them.

Again, people respond to frankness and this is often the best way to change behaviour, as it requires them to reflect on their actions. Other actions that an individual can take seem impossible on the surface but are worth an effort. These include keeping it professional at all times.

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No matter how frustrated, irritated or short-tempered you become, it’s vital you keep your professional composure. Things will affect you at work that you don’t want to react to and lose yourself.

Remember that part of the political game is keeping yourself level headed and composed and especially don’t whine and complain. It’s easy to complain about management, your boss, other people, your workload, deadlines and projects.

Also, you will find many others who will join you in the complain game because it’s a nice release and feels good to find others who share your frustrations. However, whining and complaining is a passive approach that is about standing on the side-lines and judging versus proactively working toward eliminating the cause of the problem.

Burning bridges

Another simple advice, sometimes done through gritted teeth, is don’t make enemies or burn bridges. There will be people at work you won’t like or respect. It’s important to not let this affect your ability to get along with them.

It’s easy to make enemies or have someone not like you or you not like them. However, this makes your job more difficult and just expands the work politics that already existed.

Some advocate that it is better to change the whole office culture from within. Office politics should be looked at as something that can be reframed into a positive, and an effective way to do this is to praise others, encourage teamwork and be empathetic to your co-workers.

By making an effort to change the culture to one of kindness and honesty, you can create a better environment for everyone. However, this is a long term and often lonely road to take, with others too timid to join in this office cultural change especially if it involves senior bosses doing the bullying.

For some people, the effort of attempting to navigate and even change poor office politics is too much of an uphill battle. If this happens then there is a simpler option: ditch the co-workers entirely by working for yourself. This is a final desperate option, as it implies that you really do not understand the formal and informal organizational structure of your company.

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Employees are often fixated on people’s rank or job title. There are other ways of mapping an organization’s power structure. To do this, ask yourself questions like, “Who are the real influencers?,” “Who has authority but tends not to exercise it?,” “Who is respected?,” “Who champions or mentors others?,” and “Who is the brains behind the business?

“Now that you know how existing relationships work, you can start to build your own social network. Look beyond your immediate team, and cross the formal hierarchy in all directions – co-workers, managers and executives. Don’t be afraid of politically powerful people. Instead, get to know them, and build high quality connections that avoids flattery at all cost, as astute managers can see through this.

In the final analysis, like it or loathe it, office politics are a fact of life in any organization and it not going to go way. However, it is possible to promote yourself and your cause without compromising your values or those of your organization. All workplaces are political to some extent, simply because people bring their personal emotions, needs, ambitions, and insecurities into their professional lives.

Office politics arise when these differences of personality and opinion become difficult to manage as humans are swayed by emotions, and no wonder many companies are trying to replace humans with robots and Artificial Intelligence at work. Robots don’t complain unless employees metamorphose into human robots, but this will take out the fun from office politics.
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Dr. Mohamed Ramady is an energy economist and geo political expert on the GCC and former Professor at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia and co author of ‘OPEC in a Post Shale world – where to next?’. His latest book is on ‘Saudi Aramco 2030: Post IPO challenges’.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.