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? (Shutterstock.com) How involved do you get in the political whirlwind that regularly whips through your office? (Shutterstock.com)

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.”

The Credit Thief. This person enjoys the spotlight and often takes credit for the work of others. “When collaborating with a Credit Thief, document your contributions,” the Robert Half release said. “Provide regular updates to your supervisor and correct any misrepresentations about your work.”

The Sycophant. This is the coworker who flatters everyone in a position of power. “Although it may be hard to watch, don’t sweat the Sycophant’s tactics,” the release said. “Most managers can see through them. Give kudos to deserving individuals, regardless of their position.”

The Saboteur. This person likes to play the blame game and make others look bad. “Limit your interaction with this master manipulator and make sure to stand up for yourself. Often, the Saboteur will back down when confronted,” the Robert Half statement said.

The Adviser. “This professional is often closely aligned with an executive and serves as his or her eyes and ears,” the release said. “Develop a good rapport with the Adviser because he or she could have a direct line to the top.”

I’ve seen all of these kinds of people at work during various times in my career. I’m usually most annoyed by the Credit Thief and the Sycophant, but I don’t enjoy working with any of them.

How about you? Do you get involved in office politics, or do you stay neutral? Have you worked with a Gossip Hound, Saboteur or any of the other “politicians” mentioned in the Robert Half survey? How did you get along with them, and what advice would you give to others who are dealing with one of these types — or another kind of office politician who wasn't mentioned in the survey?

Let me know about your struggles and successes, and I’ll share some of your responses in a future column.

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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