8 tips for navigating office politics

These strategies will help you evade political gaffes or deal with difficult situations that cannot be avoided.
By Cheryl Meyer

Nobody can escape office politics. Consider these examples: A partner may favor Joe over others, breeding some bitterness at the firm. Two accountants down the hall may not agree on a strategy for completing a project. Or the gossip mill may fire up, giving rise to more whispers at the water cooler.

"Anytime a group of people in an organization are trying to get something done, there will be some form of organizational politics as they try to figure out how to achieve their goals," said Peter Jacobs, founder and managing partner of Global Career Coaching in San Francisco.

Things can get dicey when professionals make political blunders, though, causing trouble for themselves and sometimes hindering their careers and chances for promotion. Employees may misinterpret the politics of their organization, communicate poorly with others, fail to actively network, or mismanage their working relationships. They also might fall short of honoring promises, hurting their in-house reputations, Jacobs said.

CPAs also may complain to one partner about another or forget to keep their own ego in check and sidestep company policies, said Ira Rosenbloom, CPA, the CEO of Optimum Strategies LLC, a consulting company that works with accounting firms. "If you've done something to disturb a partner and do it frequently, your career track can slow down and may even stop," he said.

Taking a different view, Beth Weissenberger, co-founder of Handel Group and president of HG Corporate and Sports, believes "office politics" is not a recipe for disaster but rather a business strategy in any environment of people where building relationships is key to navigating and succeeding.

"Office politics is about creating your reputation every minute," she said. "If you keep your head down and do a good job at work, you will be overlooked because you aren't building relationships with the right people. Office politics is a sport."

While it is almost impossible to avoid office politics, CPAs can avoid making political gaffes if they are perceptive and diligent about how they act and react to others. Experts offer the following tips and strategies for evading such mistakes at work and for dealing with situations that often cannot be avoided:

Continually build and manage office relationships. Understand the politics of your organization through networking. Converse with managers, peers, and employees you manage. Learn about what they are working on and their particular interests. Then, create relationships with all of them. Have lunch with two of them each week, and develop a rapport. "The people who get promoted are the ones who build relationships," Weissenberger said.

Pay special attention to key stakeholders. Discover who in your organization is most important to your career. They are your champions—those who can offer assistance, who will be impacted by the work you are doing, and whose opinions really count, Jacobs said. "Understand who these people are, their interests and motivations, who influences them, and whom they influence," he said. By establishing a connection with stakeholders, you increase the chances that they will support you in the future.

Be excellent at self-mastery. Be mindful of your actions in the workplace, and keep your commitments, or else reschedule or renegotiate, Jacobs said. Failing to honor your commitments indicates a lack of integrity and trustworthiness. "Once you develop a reputation for being inconsistent in keeping commitments, people don't want to collaborate with you," he said.

If you're a leader, establish grievance policies. Conflicts and other office snafus are bound to occur. "A smart CPA firm makes it clear whom to bring into the equation when there is a disagreement or political hiccup—such as the managing partner, senior partner, human resources person," Rosenbloom said. "Everybody should know where to go with that grievance."

Don't join the gossip mill. Every organization has unhappy and complaining employees who love to commiserate with colleagues. Don't get drawn into the negativity, Jacobs said, no matter how sympathetic you might be.

Avoid email when frustration hits. You may feel like venting, but be careful about what you say in an email. "Everything you put in email is retained for a certain period of time," Jacobs said. "Once you hit send, you have no control over where it goes next." Instead, speak to the person who has offended you, or better yet, take some time to cool off before communicating. "In political situations the right approach is to think before you do anything and think through the consequences of your actions," Rosenbloom said. And if you do make a mistake, own it quickly. Nobody is perfect, but it's best to admit your blunders.

Talk it out. If you disagree with your office peers or even your supervisor, initiate a conversation. Don't let ill will simmer until it boils over. Make sure your co-workers know they've been heard and that they understand your perspective as well. Resolve the situation "and figure out a better way to work with one another going forward," Jacobs said.

Finally, keep your temper in check. Almost everyone has a bad day now and then and needs to let off steam. But save that aggressive energy for the boxing bag at the gym. "When we let our tempers flare and our anger rises, our thinking brain starts to shut down, and our reptilian brain wakes up; there is not a lot of space for judgment at that point," Jacobs said. Instead, take a step back and breathe before you make a mistake that cannot be reversed.

Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in California. To comment on this article, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager–newsletters at the AICPA.

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