This is a guest Post by Bonnie Marcus, author of The Politics of Promotion
It’s a fairly common myth that if you work really hard and have a track record of solid performance, you’ll be successful. This formula worked well for us in school. When we kept our head down and did all the required work, we did well. Our recognition for that effort was good grades, perhaps even honors. But now, we’re in the workplace and trying to get ahead. And the approach we used in school doesn’t help us be successful at all. In fact, keeping our head down and focusing solely on our work, can often backfire.
The reality is that it takes not only good performance but political savvy to get ahead and stay ahead. Paying attention to office politics is essential in order for you to know how to best position yourself in a complex and competitive workplace.
I learned this the hard way. I was a top performer in a national company and worked my way up to AVP from an entry level position. After a reorganization, a new VP role opened up in my territory and I immediately threw my hat in the ring. I was the most qualified and I believed I was a shoe-in. But as a result of the re-organization, I also got a new boss. He was a bully and he intimidated me, so I ignored him and just focused on my work, but he was a close friend of the CEO from outside the company.
I was passed over for that promotion and I was devastated. They gave the VP job to someone from outside my region. And I was blindsided.
What was the lesson I learned? You just can’t rely on your track record alone to get ahead. I made no effort to get to know my manager, to understand how the decision would be made, or to build relationships with influencers. In short, I wasn’t paying attention to office politics.
Here are the three things you need to pay attention to in order to be politically savvy at work:
What are the rules and unwritten rules?
The rules or policies are usually obvious and clearly defined in employee manuals etc. But the unwritten rules are not, and it takes your focus and attention to identify them and understand which of these unwritten rules are sacred and should not be broken.
An example of an unwritten rule is that the policy is a 40-hour work week, 9 to 5. But when you show up at work for the first time, you see everyone in your department has been at work since 7:30 am. The unwritten rule is you need to be at your desk working at least 90 minutes before the manager comes in at 9.
Will you be fired if you don’t comply? Probably not because it’s not a formal rule. But will you be considered for promotion if you ignore the unwritten rule? Maybe. And maybe complying is the best way to position yourself for success in that situation.
Who has power and influence?
Don’t make the mistake of believing the organizational chart is the key indicator of who has power and influence. Pay attention to the workplace dynamics to best understand how decisions are made and who are the key stakeholders.
It’s critical for your success to not only identify the decision makers but who influences decisions. It’s easy to miss the boat, when you focus solely on your direct manager as the gatekeeper to your advancement. They are important and you want to have conversations with them about what it takes to get ahead. But who’s in their web of influence? Who do they turn to when considering decisions? You must build relationships with all the influencers so they are familiar with your work and value proposition.
What’s the culture?
Understanding the culture is essential to positioning yourself for success. What’s challenging is the culture can vary by leader, by department. You need to know what it takes to get ahead, not what you assume is the right path, but what’s reality. What behavior is acceptable and what is not? How are decisions made? What relationships are important?
Look for role models who have reached leadership positions and observe how they communicate, who they have strong relationships with and who are their clients? Observing these leaders will help you answer how best to navigate the politics.
In summary, let your manager know your career goal and have a direct conversation with them as well as your mentors to help you figure out how to best advance. But don’t discount the politics. Paying attention to the workplace dynamics helps you avoid being blindsided and guides you to position yourself well in your company culture.
Bonnie Marcus, M.Ed., is the president of Women’s Success Coaching and author of The Politics of Promotion: How High Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead (Wiley). Marcus helps professional women successfully navigate the workplace and position themselves to advance their careers. With 20+ years of sales and management experience, Bonnie has held executive positions in startup companies and Fortune 500 companies. Her passion is now to help other women learn to be sensitive to the culture of their organization, embrace the politics, and actively move their careers forward with a sound strategic plan.