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Balancing act: Office politicians can make work life miserable

Published: Monday, Aug. 27 2012 1:00 p.m. MDT

How involved do you get in the political whirlwind that regularly whips through your office?

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For the next couple of weeks, we’re likely to hear more about politics than even the biggest political junkies among us can stomach.

During both of the major parties’ national conventions, we’ll witness a flurry of speeches and political posturing that will kick off the final, frenzied, two-month sprint to Election Day.

How involved you get in the national political process depends on who you are. I’m quite interested, but I’m getting sick of the daily fighting and finger-pointing. I also know that it’s only going to get worse between now and November. Sigh.

However, I’m not planning to discuss presidential politics today. The real question I want to ask is, how involved do you get in the political whirlwind that regularly whips through your office?

A few months ago, I wrote about a survey in which 56 percent of respondents said involvement in office politics was either very or somewhat necessary in order to get ahead.

Now, the same company that commissioned that survey, specialized staffing firm Robert Half International, has released a new study that offers a different take on the same topic.

The just-released results are from a phone survey of more than 700 adult office workers in North America. They were asked the question, “Which one of the following most closely describes your involvement in office politics?” In response, 14 percent said they were “active campaigners” who had to play the game to get ahead. Forty percent classified themselves as “occasional voters” who were involved only when issues were important to them, and 39 percent said they were neutral and stayed completely out of the fray.

I put myself in the second category. I would love to be neutral all of the time, but I’ve found that I have to get involved in office politics on occasion to make sure my team’s interests are represented in the overall scheme of things.

The Robert Half survey also found that 56 percent of respondents had observed political maneuverings on the job. That seems a little low to me. Even if you’re neutral, who hasn’t witnessed politics in the workplace?

Anyway, when those who had observed politics at work were asked which activities were most common, 54 percent cited gossiping. That was followed by 20 percent who mentioned “gaining favor by flattering the boss,” 17 percent who said “taking credit for others’ work” and 2 percent who said “sabotaging coworkers’ projects.”

“Becoming embroiled in office politics is never a good career move, but it’s wise to be aware of political undercurrents on the job because they do exist in most organizations,” said Max Messmer, chairman and CEO of Robert Half International, in a press release about the survey. “There are people who seek to get ahead in their careers at the expense of others, and this behavior erodes trust and undermines team morale.”

That’s absolutely true, and I’m sure we’ve all seen or worked in an office that faced such problems. Too much political maneuvering inevitably creates a toxic atmosphere that makes people dread going to work. Not good.

Regarding the specific issues cited in the survey, I’m glad the saboteur figure is so low, but the high gossiping number is unfortunate. In my experience, just a handful of people are responsible for a large portion of gossip, and every office seems to have those people.

However, it is possible to work with office politicians, including gossips. The Robert Half release offered tips for dealing with:

The Gossip Hound. “Keep your distance from the Gossip Hound and don’t say anything you wouldn’t say to someone directly.”

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