How to Improve Your Skills at Office Politics


December 17, 2007   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

The world is full of people who think they are going to get ahead by putting their head down and doing their work. It’s a myth that good work makes a good career. Really, good office politics makes a good career.

But why is everyone so pissy about office politics? You know who is good at office politics, people with empathy, people who are great time managers, and people who see themselves as part of a team. Which means, of course, that you should get good at office politics, because the people who are bad at it have dead-end careers, and spend their lives whining about how it’s not fair because they are so good at doing their work.

    • Realize that it’s about being nice
      It’s very difficult to do office politics because you have to figure out the Venn diagram of what people are having a hard time with, and what you are particularly skilled at, and where those circles intersect. This means you need a lot of self-knowledge about your strengths, and you need a lot of emotional intelligence to understand what other people struggle with.

But then, you need to actually help someone. This mean that after you’ve spent all that extra time getting to know someone else’s situation, you need to spend more extra time doing some work to help that person. Maybe it’s staying late with them to get something done. Maybe it’s negotiating something for them because they are bad at negotiating. It could be anything, really, but it takes time to help someone.

In order to get extra time to do all this, you need to be so dedicated to helping people that you need to do your own work extra efficiently to make time to be nice. What a lovely workplace, right? Where everyone is nice to each other? Great. You can start that right now by getting a better attitude about office politics.

    • Don’t rely on your job competence
      There is great research to show that people value social skills at work more than they value job skills. Here’s a clear example: People would rather work with someone who is likable and incompetent than someone who is competent but a not likable . And when someone is a jerk, people start thinking the person is less competent, whether it’s actually true or not.

What does this mean for you? Stop saying that you don’t have time for office politics. Because office politics is really about being likable, and the best way to look competent at work is not to do good work as much as to be likable. So let some of the details go, get rid of your perfectionist tendencies, (which will probably eventually make you a depressive anyway) and start wandering around your office getting to know people.

    • Blame yourself first
      If you are bad at office politics, it is not because the people you work with suck. It’s because you suck. You need to get better at dealing with a wide range of people. People with empathy have a strong tendency to want to understand all people, not just the people who are scintillating and competent and fun.

A great test of your emotional intelligence is looking at the range of people you get along with. Strong emotional intelligence means you can get along with almost anyone. So instead of complaining about being shut out of the political arena at your office, figure out how to get along with people who don’t like you – by understanding what motivates them.

    • Go to couples therapy
      Generally speaking, the obnoxious things we do with our significant other are the same obnoxious things we do at work. In the office people are too well behaved to scream at you about your personality deficiencies, but at home, surely your significant other has let you know in no uncertain terms why you are annoying.A great way to figure out how to overcome your personality challenges is to go to couples therapy and practice on your spouse or whatever the person is to you. They have more patience than your boss, for one thing. For another, it feels safer. I mean, you probably won’t get fired.When I went with my husband I was shocked to find that the exact problems I needed to fix on with my co-workers were the problems I needed to fix with my husband. I’m not saying I did it right away, but I learned a lot about myself. 
  • Be your true self
    If you want to be good at office politics, you have to care about office politics. You must genuinely want to help people and you must get personal pleasure out of figuring out peoples’ strengths and weaknesses. Otherwise, your energy in this arena will feel false, which is no way to connect with people. And, when all is said and done, office politics is about making authentic connections. 

Written for Dumb Little Man by Penelope Trunk. Penelope is a columnist for the Boston Globe and Yahoo Finance. She also maintains a great blog named Brazen Careerist.


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