Survivor: The Office

You can't avoid office politics, so you might as well learn the rules of the game

3 min read

With the U.S. presi­dential election ­season upon us, we engineers—and not only those of us who live in the United States—are reminded daily of why we never wanted to get involved in politics. Even so, each of us must contend with politics of a different kind—office politics—because human beings are political animals and we form alliances, negotiate deals, demand ­tribute, and wreak revenge.

Each of us must contend with office politics, because human beings are political animals, and we form alliances, negotiate deals, demand tribute, and wreak revenge

Here is my short list of political dos and don’ts:

Learn how your ­organization actually works. This may bear little resemblance to the formal organizational chart. One junior ­engineer in her first job began ­noticing who got cc’d on office memos, reasoning that they were the key people. She found out who all these ­people were and their roles or ­responsibilities and made it a point to meet with them ­informally. She credits this with ­boosting her early career.

Find out what your reputation is and what people say about you. Even if you don’t engage in gossip, ­others will, and the ­resulting ­misperceptions can hurt you. Soon after my unit was moved to a new department, my manager told me she was surprised to hear that some people in the new area were saying bad things about me. The most serious complaint was that I was difficult to work with and combative. We decided that I would try to be especially cordial and diplomatic, particularly with key staff members with whom we were developing projects. She monitored the situation over several months and reported back that my reputation had significantly improved.

Consult with people and identify common objectives. Ask them, ”What will it take for you to support this?” Maybe you’ll need to revise the scope of a project or accommodate their desires to be involved in it. I was once working with our engineering department to review the technical scope of an airport project and held a meeting to discuss their comments. The lead engineer asked me, in front of everyone, if I was going to listen to their comments—because no one ever had. I assured him that every comment they suggested would be incorporated unless we agreed it didn’t fit. He became a huge supporter of the project. Years later, even though I’ve left the organization, he speaks enthusiastically about that project whenever we meet.

Get to know the people who are against you or your ­projects. One time I got a phone call from a ­traffic ­engineering manager who was very angry with me over a project I was running. While I might have talked him down or had an argument, instead I listened to his points and ­suggested we meet that day for lunch at his location to talk it out. We reached an agreement, and the project went smoothly.

Build strong personal ­relationships with key people. This will give you a sounding board within the organization to get feedback and advice on how you’re doing, what you need to do to get something done, and how to identify the pitfalls or ­persons who will object. Get a mentor in your organization, someone more experienced than you, who can give you the scuttlebutt on how to proceed and give valuable advice to questions like ”What’s your take on this situation?”

Publicly recognize the good work of others. Always say thank you for a job well done. Get known for being a professional with whom everyone wants to work. Be a manager who develops his or her people for promotion. You will build a cadre of people in the organization who will talk you up and support you when you need it, even if you don’t know it.

About the Author

CARL SELINGER offers advice on avoiding the pitfalls of office politics. A private consultant with 40 years of experience in business, government, and academia, Selinger gives seminars to engineers on nontechnical skills. His 2004 book, Stuff You Don’t Learn in Engineering School (Wileyâ''IEEE Press), has now been published in China.

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