Published in SmartBrief on Leadership June 14,2021

This past November, James daSilva’s piece “How Can Office Politics Work for You Instead of Against You?” highlighted a problematic aspect of office politics: Although office politics is not a zero-sum game, how do you deal with people who act like it is?

We’ve all experienced it. We’re trying to go about our jobs, being responsible and productive, making sure we pull our weight for the benefit of the team or of the project at hand. And then along comes a co-worker who spends extra time buttering up the boss, claiming a little extra credit or subtly denigrating someone’s hard-working efforts. Such experiences are maddening. Usually, the person doing it seems to get away with it.

Then we compound the problem by thinking that we have to respond. That, if we don’t respond, the other person not only gets an advantage when future promotions come or when bonuses are decided, but also that, somehow, we look worse and our status decreases. We worry that our prospects will suffer on both a relative and absolute basis.

Oftentimes it’s the actions we take in response that truly cause the problem. In such a frame of mind, we don’t think as clearly as we would normally. The chances of us overreacting are high.

Now, if you believe you have the savvy to combat this, by all means go ahead and give it a try. Go ahead and point out to your boss that something another person claimed credit for was actually you. Or wait for the office suck-up to finish kibitzing with the head of your division about their favorite places to go on vacation, the best places to shop for shoes or how the hometown sports team is doing, and then quietly go over to the head and say that you will put your latest report on their desk or that you are off to solve the problem he/she talked about and you’ll have the solution by tomorrow.

If you can do this calmly, without any surface emotion, give it a shot. It will likely be effective.

But how many of us can really pull that off? Not me, and probably not you.

What to do instead

Instead, try this approach: No approach. That’s right, no approach; let the other person or people go about their office politics, and you simply pretend it isn’t happening.

Why does this work? Several reasons. First, whatever your circumstance, your assumption that playing office politics works is probably incorrect. The same for your assumption that it is significantly influencing the manager or leader of the business or business unit. Managers are under pressure constantly to produce results. They care about who is helping them do that. Same for CEOs and leaders. Indeed, anyone who is not helping is a distraction at best, and a pain in the neck at worst.

Managers ignore, or are even oblivious to, office politics much more than you think. The manager/leader won’t admit that openly. If they say something to the team and it turns out they have misread the situation, that can be disastrous to morale and imply that they don’t have a good handle on things. They will likely be silent about it.

If you are doing your job conscientiously, putting in full effort and not leaving things for others to do that you could or should do yourself, you will be recognized properly.

The second reason the “no approach” to office politics works is that businesses now are much more transparent and the emphasis on cost control much stronger. Those who are not pulling their weight stand out more, and taking the time and effort to play office politics means less time and effort on getting the job done.

Organizations are lean. The old days of multiple management layers offered greater opportunity for unfairness, and the goal of office politics is to create unfairness that favors one person over another. In today’s lean management structures, accountability dominates. Much harder, and riskier, to attempt to inject unfairness.

The third reason falls from the second: Office politics is now more easily caught out, and a higher price is paid. It only takes getting caught once or twice to brand someone as attempting to advance by office politics. Once the third instance occurs, that person’s exit becomes likely.

The “no approach” has a welcome byproduct. Your lack of attention to the machinations around you may lead your colleagues to believe that you have some special status, and you may find it easier to get assistance and cooperation in succeeding with your responsibilities.

I discovered this by accident. I was managing a division of a business when a new senior manager came on board. He was a ferocious office politician, seemingly owning the time and attention of the chairman of the company, to the detriment of all the other managers.

Things got so bad that an informal meeting was held to decide what we could all do about him. I attended the meeting and expressed moral support, but, true to my “no approach” philosophy, did not volunteer to participate in any specific action. I left the meeting early as I had an appointment outside the office. Exiting the building to hail a taxi, I sensed someone following me. It was one of the other attendees, who stopped me to ask pleadingly, “You are going to help us, right?”

Turns out that my lack of visible anger or agitation had over the past weeks led the other team members to believe that I had some special pull with the chairman!

Because I never took any actions that could be viewed as harmful to my colleagues, and indeed was always supportive, I was viewed as the best thing to be in the workplace: a good person and team player, but with power. Of course, I had no such pull or power, but it proved to me that the “no approach” was not only sensible but also created a shield of protection and a level of respect from colleagues.

Functional skills and the ability to contribute, combined with a solid work ethic, have never been more valued and appreciated than they are today. Combine those with an avoidance of office politics, offensive or defensive, and you will succeed without much undue interference.

Of course, there are organizations where the office politics start at the very top and are completely infused throughout the business. Places where the leader or founder does not value commitment or conscientious effort, and where catering to his or her needs or wishes is the required priority, regardless of whether they matter to the business.

Such places do exist. My only advice if you find yourself there is to look for another job. Those kind of places rarely are able to expand, and generally don’t make it in the long haul (although if the leader is highly talented, they can certainly do well for some period of time.) How to identify those places in advance? That’s easy: high turnover. Others before you will already be a guide as to your likely fate.

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