It's Survival of the Politically Fittest

No matter how good you are at your job, without the ability to negotiate office power structures, you're toast

By Don MacRae

There's an Aesop's fable in which a little creature asks a crocodile, "Will you give me a ride across the river and promise not to eat me?" The crocodile agrees, but when they reach the middle of the river, the crocodile turns to eat the little creature. "How can you eat me when you promised you wouldn't?" implores the victim. The crocodile replies: "How could you not know that this is my nature?"

There are lots of crocodiles in business, too. And unless you know how they operate, you'll be eaten alive just like I was early in my career. Back then, I thought I could get ahead simply by working hard and using my talents to the fullest. What a bunch of baloney.

Anyone with significant career aspirations has to play the game of office politics. From the moment you start at a company, you're gunning for one of those highly prized jobs in the executive suite. Make no mistake: Your competitors are just as smart as you are. They want that promotion just as badly as you do. And when hiring managers have two equally good candidates, they'll pick the person who can influence others and get the job done.

Political savvy comes easier to some people than to others, but whatever your nature, you first need to figure out your style at work. In The Secret Handshake (Doubleday, 2000), author Kathleen Kelly Reardon identifies four types of political animals in Corporate America:

Purists are naïve souls who think people get ahead because they work hard and are really good at what they do.

Team Players collaborate well with others and put team goals ahead of personal ones.

Street Fighters love to work the system. They thrive on infighting and one-upmanship.

Maneuverers play the game less obtrusively, with little regard for the rules. They aren't committed to hard work or teamwork.

Street Fighters and Maneuverers will likely succeed in a highly political organization (though they may not fit well in one that's apolitical). Purists and Team Players, on the other hand, may become alienated if they don't get with the program. Based on Reardon's research -- and my own painful experiences -- here are some way to improve your political savvy:

Evaluate the corporate culture. Do people tend to flatter those at the top and ignore workers at lower levels? Do they avoid saying anything that could rock the boat? If you answered yes to any of the above, face the facts: You've got organizational politics. Keep reading.

Become politically astute. Focus your efforts on areas that have top priority for the company. If excellence in customer service is the next big initiative, get directly involved with that.

Pick your battles carefully. Know when to speak up and when to shut up. If your opinions could make a superior look bad in front of others, keep them to yourself.

Think and act strategically. Presenting your ideas at a meeting without knowing how they will be received is naïve at best, political suicide at worst. Instead, ask your colleagues for their ideas before the meeting and integrate them into your own so that there's mutual gain and recognition.

Develop key relationships with senior management. You must be seen as an ally in accomplishing their agenda. Nurture these relationships in private -- before your colleagues arrive in the morning, after they've gone home at night, and over lunches that you arrange at strategic opportunities.

Get in the loop and stay there. Position yourself to get important information. What's the current hot initiative on the CEO's agenda? Who's in favor, and who has lost status? Develop a network of people on whom you can call to get a clear take on what's happening.

Never allow yourself to be perceived as a victim. Don't let people to look good at your expense. If someone blames or humiliates you in front of others, maintain your composure and redirect the conversation. As Thomas Jefferson said, "nothing gives a person so much advantage over another as to always remain cool and unruffled under all circumstances."

Focus your career in areas of the company that make money. This may seem obvious, but you'll enjoy more opportunities in those parts of the business where money is coming in rather than going out.

Promote yourself. Help people in authority recognize your expertise and dedication. If you don't have the answers to their questions, volunteer to find them.

Develop your relating style. Learn how to manage conflict and to read nonverbal cues. Focus on asking instead of telling, and learn how to negotiate "mutually acceptable solutions." Above all, don't take criticism personally.

Being savvy isn't about what's fair or right. It's about playing the game so that you survive in the cutthroat world of business -- and ultimately win that promotion or plum assignment. If you don't develop your political acumen, then you have only yourself to blame when the crocodile says: "How could you not know that this is my nature?"

Don MacRae is president of the Lachlan Group in Toronto, Canada. He has taught and worked with corporate leaders for the past 25 years. You can reach him at or visit his Web site at

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