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Office Politics: Master the Game

Office Politics

I started working at Google a couple of months back as a software engineer. I am sick of all the politics. What should I do?

— Quora Post

In the last post, we talked about why some people quit working at Google and get a job somewhere else. According to Fortune, Google is the number one best place to work in America—and maybe the world.

So what’s their problem?

For many, it’s politics.

Office politics, to be exact. One former Googler after another takes to Quora to complain about how difficult it is to get things done over there. They take issue with everything from promotions to getting meaningful work to believing in the company’s mission. And the most common solution is to quit and go work for a startup.

As I found out early in my career (see Chapter 20, Default to Open, in Who the Hell Wants to Work for You?), you have to watch your back no matter where you are. Working for a startup is no church choir practice, either. I’ve seen more backstabbing in the startup world than inside mature companies, where people are, if not more honest, than at least lazier and more complacent.

So, what should our office-politics-sick engineer do?

In their responses, several current and former Googlers pointed to what they called a “non-technical learning curve.” In other words, grow up and welcome to the real world. There are no perfect companies. Decisions get made by people and not computers (yet), and, in most cases, it’s still a good thing.

Not that this Google employee shouldn’t quit his job. Many ex-Googlers report the higher job satisfaction and greater peace of mind they found at other companies—but who is to say those improvements weren’t, at least in part, due to the superior political skills they gained while working at Google?

Office politics can mean different things. Because Google aspires to be a strict meritocracy, it has policies, procedures, and special committees designed to eradicate human error in hiring and promotions. Ironically, this has led to many people shamelessly gaming the system.

“… At most software companies, promotions are handed out by upper management based on seniority, the team budget, and even how much your manager likes you. At Google however, in some sense, you decide when you get promoted. You are the master of your career, and you must learn how to choose your projects, demonstrate the necessary qualities (ex: initiative, impact, leadership) in quantitative terms, and write a compelling case for your promotion, with the support of your peers. Then your case is reviewed and adjudicated by an independent committee of Google engineers and managers drawn from across the company…” (Quora, 2016)

“… There is a saying that ‘what got you here won’t get you there.’ Basically, what got you in was the interview process. You had to use your brain and computer science knowledge to get in. For many people, that’s the very last meritocracy they’ll ever encounter at Google. Once you’re in, you really don't need that much brain and CS knowledge…” (Quora, 2015)

“Most of the politics comes from the promotion system rewarding highly visible tasks while requiring testimonials from a limited number of high ranking engineers. The net result is that there’s a lot of people fighting for those tasks, and fighting to work with the high ranking engineers.” (Quora, 2013)

“… You end up with very good engineers who don’t exactly have much EQ (social skills and ass-kissing skills) to climb up the ladder, while some of the less competent and less respected engineers actually get promoted multiple times because they understand how to navigate the political atmosphere better. This, combined with the dreaded perf cycle that everyone hates doing, causes serious morale issues. FYI perf is Google’s performance review process that favors people who know how to market themselves and promote themselves to the top… And in many cases when these immature people are not promoted, they create a big stink and lots of drama, and voila, they are promoted at the next cycle…” (Quora, 2015)

There are also politics in the more classic sense of power struggles at the top:

“… there are fiefdoms here and here, and people want to protect their turfs and do whatever it takes to keep them at the top of the food chain. There is a lot of power hungry folks using their brain power for advancing their own careers. Despite the “fewer arrows” movement that Larry pushed for there are still tons of unnecessary and duplicate projects that exist because people on top just don’t want to give up power…” (Quora, 2015)

It looks as though Google provides its employees with well-rounded schooling in office politics. I wish more people stayed there long enough to take full advantage of this amazing opportunity—and then moved on to other jobs. I feel that, contrary to the industry folklore, playing politics is becoming a lost art. Too many people are missing this valuable skill as it is, and the more gooey-eyed and millennial we get as a society, the less hope we have of perfecting our game.

The reason I say this is all the snags I hit when selling intranet software to large and medium-sized businesses. Do you know the number one question I get from those folks?

“Tim, how do I convince my boss to buy your software?”

That’s the question I should be asking you, Mr. Buyer, just before I board the plane to fly across the country to give you a one-hour presentation. It’s your company's politics. How the hell should I know the answer?

I say none of that out loud. Instead, I tell you that your boss is welcome to call me anytime, as many times as it takes. I’d be thrilled to field his questions for you. I say this with a clean heart, knowing you won’t take me up on my offer because you don’t trust your boss to make the right choice. In the meantime, you could make your job and mine a lot easier by learning to navigate your office politics.

My political skills couldn’t keep me employed at a company of two people. So, I know I’d be dead meat at Google. Nevertheless, since you put me on the spot, let me do my small part to remedy the situation. Here are some thoughts that may or may not help you convince your boss now or in the future.

Know the code

Your company has a written and unwritten code of behavior. The existing code has the burden of social proof on its side, and people will follow it, whether or not they agree with it. (For more on social proof see Looking for New Ways to Engage with Employees?)

The code will provide most of the answers to questions like, “How do I convince my boss to…?” Or, “How do I ask my boss for…?” Or, “How can I get my boss to…?” The code is there. And your boss follows it too, whether it’s some hard metric or ROI, or a slick presentation, or a word from above, or…

You better understand your company’s magic formula and be sure it features prominently as you build your case to your boss. Else, you know what your boss’s first question will be.

Now, I am not saying you can never change or bend the rules. However, as one Googler wisely pointed out, “changing the rules is going to take even more effort than following them.” Either way, you need to learn the rules first. Then learn the rules for changing the rules, if you are so inclined.

Know who the losers are

Every business decision—from serving healthy food in the cafeteria to a major acquisition—has its winners and losers. The winners may or may not champion your cause, but the losers will resist it with all their might. Know who they are and work ahead of time to break their resistance. If they think the deal is going through whether they like it or not, they will resign themselves and put their energies towards derailing someone else’s project.

Note that elsewhere in life, it is wise to ignore the naysayers and focus on the people who support your idea. However, in business, as in politics, things are usually done by consensus. A “no” has far more power to stop your project than a “yes” does to move it forward. Therefore, an experienced office politician knows whose turf he is treading on and has a strategy to neutralize and destroy the opposition.

What if your boss is a loser?

Putting your boss on the losing end could be a career-killer, so be sure you understand his or her stake in the matter. I learned this from a friend who went to work for a large corporation fresh out of business school.

She was hired into the corporate marketing department to help them decide how they could best support regional subsidiaries. My friend interviewed the staff at the regional companies and concluded that corporate marketing was useless and the companies were better off marketing themselves. She cheerfully presented these findings to a roomful of executives, only to get a “needs improvement” on her next performance evaluation.

In the meantime, the company went with her recommendation and canned corporate marketing. The funny part is that my friend was let go after the next performance cycle, and her former boss stayed with the company under a different title. My friend realized she did need significant improvement… in office politics. Too bad they didn’t teach that at business school.

Put yourself in a position to do favors

You will need a lot of help from other people to be good—and to look good—at your job. You could wait until the last moment and then get mad if you don’t receive the help you need. Or you could proactively make yourself useful and have a leg up on the competition when the time comes to call in favors. I hear this is the way they play the game in real politics. If enough people owe you a favor, your legislation gets passed. If not, it gets killed or bogged down in meaningless details.

Ass-kissing is a crude form of making yourself useful. Sure, it’s effective, but it comes with a social stigma. You could make enemies, even as you’re making friends. So, unless sucking up is a particular talent of yours, I would stick with less treacherous tactics. There’s plenty of room to be of service.

Put yourself at the source of the rumor mill

This is a must for any serious office politician. And it’s a great way to be in a position to do someone a favor. You want to be the first to get the news, so you can strategically share it with the right people. Like a seasoned journalist, cultivate and protect your sources. Befriend someone from budget planning to know when big changes are in the making. Talk to sales to get the latest on the competition.

Playing office politics is an ancient and complicated art. I’ve only covered a few ways to get started. You can take it as far as you like. Remember, you don’t have to get downright Machiavellian—but you don’t need to feel left out either. Focus on what you like about your job, and enjoy an occasional game of office politics. It can be as beneficial to your career as it is for pumping your ego and promoting a positive outlook on life.

____

If you dread office politics, you might like my book, because it helps you genuinely connect with people at work.

Tim Eisenhauer
Written by Tim Eisenhauer

Tim is president and co-founder of Axero Solutions, a leading intranet software vendor. He's also a bestselling author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Mastering Employee Engagement. Tim’s been featured in Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur, CNBC, Today, and other leading publications.

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