The Institute of Management's Karen Dale explains how to become an expert office politician and stay ahead of the game.
Office politics gets a bad press, with more than half of executives citing it as one of the major causes of stress in their working lives. Many people would rather avoid it at all costs, yet it is an integral part of the way organisations work. Ignoring office politics completely could thwart your career plans.

By taking some basic steps, you can use office politics positively and make it work for you. Remember, most people are motivated by the search for recognition, job satisfaction, promotion or reward, or a combination of all four, and these factors influence people’s behaviour.

How can office politics work for you?

You need a clear idea of what you want to achieve and how you plan to achieve it. Think about the factors that might hinder or help you in reaching your goals and targets. The way we work, how we communicate, how we come across to others and the relationships we build with colleagues (friends or foes) are all crucial. Many modern organisations are in a constant state of change, but by being well-informed and prepared, you will be in a better position to grasp new opportunities and side-step potential obstacles.

How do you come across?

Take an objective look at yourself. Many of us fit cosily into stereotypes – the insincere sales rep, the grey accountant, the PR chick or the computer geek. Is that an image that will help you achieve your goals? It’s not only about how you look. Think about the qualities you want to portray and the types of behaviour that would develop this image. For example, a well-organised person is more likely to give the impression of being capable and able to deliver results. Behaviour that would reinforce this image includes punctuality, meeting deadlines, tidiness and good time management.

How does networking help?

Without realising it, many of us build informal networks of people who help us to do our jobs. But it is worthwhile taking a more structured approach to this activity. Think about people you know who might fit into these categories:

  • Influencers who make things happen for you

  • Gatekeepers who can allow or deny access to others

  • Stimulators who kick-start your creativity

Time-wasters, fight-pickers, know-it-alls and data-hoarders exist in all firms

  • Role models you can learn from

  • Sources of information who will share what they know.

These people may work at your current firm, but might also be ex-colleagues or someone from a different firm. You may need to go out of your way to develop a relationship with them; for example, if they are based in a different building. But the relationship needs to be nurtured, and perceived as beneficial to both of you.

What about communication skills?

Organisations rely on a combination of formal and informal communication, so it is wise to be involved in both. Being tuned into the grapevine, without spending your whole time listening to rumours, can provide invaluable information.

Always give careful thought to the method of communication you use. Decide whether the information needs to be in writing, perhaps as a permanent record, or personalised with a phone call or meeting.

Meetings are complex interactions. Think about whether it is really to your advantage to attend, and, if so, find out what others may have on their agendas in advance, so that you can go prepared.

You must be able to read what others are really saying. Some colleagues may be inept at getting their message across or very good at communicating something quite different to what they appear to be saying. Words, tone, expression, body language, and even what is not said, are all key to the real message.

Any more advice?