“We’re going out to get some drinks after work, do you want to come?”
You think: No, I’ve been here all day and would rather go home and stare at my TV.
But instead you say: “Of course!”
Sound familiar? The reality is this: What can appear to be just a casual invitation isn’t always so straightforward in the workplace.
The truth is that with almost every interaction, you’re being judged, and if you choose to not participate, you risk being labeled as anti-social or not a team player.
Oh yes, the joy of office politics!
Of course, you know that there are times when you have to play the game if you want to get ahead. It’s why you say yes to happy hour when you just want to go home, and it’s why you agree to help your boss prep for her presentation even though you have a growing to-do list of your own.
With that said, you don’t always have to give in. (You also don’t have to work in an office like this, though once you get to a certain size, it’s hard to find one that doesn’t involve some politicking.)
These are the times when it’s in your best interest to roll up your sleeves and give in:
1. When You Want to Get Promoted
Let’s face it: If you’re looking to get promoted, chances are you’re going to have to play some form of office politics. In this case, it’s not only about your work, but your ability to interact with a variety of people.
Earlier in my career, I had a colleague who knew a lot, but had a difficult personality. He had his own qualms with the job, and let’s just say he didn’t lay out the welcome mat for me.
During my performance review, my manager mentioned the strained working relationship. She even asked if I would go to him for help if needed. My answer was “No, I’d figure it out myself before I’d do that.” As you might guess, that wasn’t the answer she was looking for.
Knowing what I know now, I should’ve played the game and chosen my words better. I could’ve said that I would work with him despite our challenges at times and that I would try to find a common ground so that we can both complete our goals. (Do you see the difference between that and just flat out saying “No, he sucks”?)
Am I saying that you should lie to work your way to the top? No. But it’s important to strategically manage your message and not say anything that could be held against you.
2. When Leadership Is In The Vicinity
Any events or meetings that involve higher-ups (from your boss all the way to the CEO) are usually seen as a “must-go,” even if they may be inconvenient, not the best use of your time, or just simply awkward.
This is a part of office politics where the focus is on appearances: Who showed up and who did not.
So, this isn’t the time to pull out the, “Oh, sorry, can’t make it,” excuse. This is a time when you should go. But I don’t want you to just see this as something you have to suck up because you have no control. In fact, you can do the exact opposite: Control how these meetings work for you.
This is your chance to get noticed and put your name in front of leadership. If you’re going to attend, don’t shrink in the corner, counting down the minutes until it’s over.
Instead, use it as an opportunity to sneak in a comment or two about current or past projects you excelled in, quantify your results and relay positive feedback you received, and show your personality. In fact, it wouldn’t hurt to have a few of these conversation starters ready to go.
This may be one of the times when your work that may have gone unnoticed gets the attention it deserves. Once you’ve done your part, then you can go home (or back to your desk), knowing that you were your own advocate and seen as part of the team.
Act now, cringe later.
3. When There’s The Opportunity To Network
Okay, so one of the main reasons why you give into office politics is forge relationships with people and build allies. If you’ve been eyeing a position with another team or you want the opportunity to get exposure to new opportunities, this is a great time to spread your wings.
Going to happy hour every once in a while is a way to meet people you may not get a chance to talk to during your day-to-day.
One important thing to remember, though: You may play the game to get exposed to new people and get more visibility for your personal brand, but you never want to compromise yourself by throwing someone under the bus, participating in negative banter, or doing something detrimental to your career. This is exactly when office politics can become tricky waters to navigate!
So the next time you’re wondering if you should play the game or go home, think about these situations. Ask yourself what can you gain if you participate. What can you lose if you don’t? It’s not always fair that this is the situation you’re in, but it can also work to your advantage if you learn when you need to participate and when you don’t.