5 key skills for navigating office politics

Leadership and strategy consultant Niven Postma says if you don't do politics, politics will do you.

If you are hoping to find a politics-free working environment, you are going to be disappointed. There’s no such thing, according to leadership and strategy consultant Niven Postma MD of Niven Postma Inc, who was speaking at the HR Indaba in Sandton.  Niven defined corporate politics as the informal, unofficial and sometimes behind-the-scenes efforts to sell ideas, influence people, increase power, or achieve other objectives. 

“You will find corporate politics wherever there’s a group of people together, from big corporates to NGOs, churches to academia. People tend to see politics as negative and destructive. The eat or be eaten, me or them dynamic. The stereotype is not wrong, it does exist, but it’s not the whole story,”  she said. 

“You can do this for the good of your organisation and your own career. Or you can do this purely for yourself and destroy people’s lives and careers in the process.”

All organisations are political to some extent. At the extreme end is the pathologically politicised environment. 

“If you are working in one of those, my only advice is, ‘Get out now’”, said Niven. “The poison that comes from a truly toxic environment can’t be underestimated - the rules break down and it takes its toll on people’s health, confidence, marriage, life.” 

Less extreme environments can and should be managed. According to her, studies show that political intelligence is a strong predictor of success. Of course hard work and talent are important, but you also need to navigate politics and build power and influence.

Numerous studies have shown that political intelligence is the best overall predictor of job performance and career success. People with political intelligence do better in gaining personal power, advancing their career, managing career and job stress and impacting organisational outcomes.

The bottom line is,  don’t stick you head in the sand. Corporate politics is not going away so make sure it works for you, not against you.

Niven outlined the five key skills that politically smart people have:

1. They actively build relationships. Networking is the number 1 unwritten rule of success in business and the best way to access information and opportunities. Networking takes place in and out of the organisation, upwards, downwards and horizontally. 

2. They manage their stakeholders appropriately and deliberately. Think about who matters and how to manage and connect with them. It could be anything from WhatsApp groups and coffee dates to more formal processes. This should be a systematic and deliberate practice, and it takes time and effort.

3. They actively manage the perceptions people have of them. Invisible contributions don’t give you any benefits, says Postma. Don’t let your work and talent go unnoticed. Women in particular need to heed this message!

4. They know when to apologise and how. We all make mistakes. There’s power in an apology if it’s appropriately delivered.

5. They are always prepared. Do your homework and understand what people need to hear and know. Do the advance work. Take it seriously. Prepare the ground for the best possible response and reception to what you’re trying to do.