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Balancing act: Is it necessary to play politics to get ahead at work?

Published: Monday, Feb. 27 2012 1:00 p.m. MST

Almost every organization has some degree of politics at play.

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Backbiting. Making accusations that are based on suspect information. Currying favor. Misstating others' positions.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? But, surprisingly, I'm not referring to the presidential campaign season we're all suffering through right now.

Rather, I'm talking about a different kind of politics that affects most of us every day: office politics.

Some people enjoy playing politics at work. These are the ones who always seem to know who to talk to and how to talk to them in order to get ahead, regardless of their job skills or the actual work they accomplish.

Others eschew office politics altogether, refusing to "play the game" — and often suffer the consequences.

But the question remains, how much is too much when it comes to office politics?

I thought of this recently after receiving a press release from specialized staffing firm Robert Half International.

Robert Half hired an independent research firm to do telephone interviews with more than 400 U.S. workers 18 or older and asked them, "In your opinion, what effect, if any, does involvement in office politics have on one's career?"

The results are interesting, I think. Fifteen percent said such involvement is very necessary to get ahead, and 41 percent said it's somewhat necessary. Forty-two percent said it's not at all necessary to be involved in office politics to get ahead, and 2 percent said they didn't know.

(I wonder about the 2 percent. Seriously, who doesn't have an opinion about office politics? But I digress.)

Max Messmer, chairman and CEO of Robert Half International, said in the release that almost every organization has some degree of politics at play.

"The savviest professionals practice workplace diplomacy," Messmer said. "They remain attuned to political undercurrents but don't allow themselves to get pulled into situations that could compromise their working relationships or reputation."

I've tried to walk that line during my career. I know there are times when some political acumen is necessary for a person to survive and thrive in the typical workplace. I'm a particularly strong believer in the office diplomacy Messmer mentions.

However, I also know that unethical or nasty behavior doesn't win a person any friends at work. I've avoided participating in such activities, though my current and former co-workers would be the best judges of that. I'm sure they'll let me know if I'm giving myself too much credit.

Navigating political situations is a challenge, no matter where you work. Robert Half offers six tips to help, including:

— "Build a broad coalition of support." Work to gain the respect and trust of all colleagues, whether they're power players or they're at the grassroots level. "Forge strong alliances by sharing credit for successes and delivering on your promises. You never know whose endorsement or vote of confidence could benefit your career in the future."

— "Avoid smear campaigns." This means you shouldn't gossip, and you should be direct but tactful in discussions with coworkers.

— "Stay true to your values. It's an unfortunate truth that there are those who'll do anything to 'win,' but character and credibility count. You don't need to play underhanded games to rise through the ranks."

— "Connect with your constituencies." This means you should observe the work styles, priorities and communication preferences of your coworkers and adapt your approach to your specific audience.

— "Play by the rules." Just as small mistakes can lead to big problems on the political campaign trail, they also can have serious implications in the office. "Avoid sticky situations by paying close attention to office protocol at your firm," Robert Half advises. "If you take a misstep, make amends quickly."

— "Dodge controversy." With the way things are going this year, that may mean avoiding the topic of presidential politics when chatting around the water cooler.

All of these are good suggestions, I believe. The bottom line, as usual, is to treat others at work the way you'd like them to treat you. If you can manage to do that, chances are your coworkers will see you as someone they can trust and upon whom they can depend.

Frankly, I'd take that over winning a political campaign any day.

Email your comments to kratzbalancingact@gmail.com or post them online at deseretnews.com. Follow me on Twitter at gkratzbalancing or on Facebook on my journalist page.

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