The Rules of the Game: Pay Attention to Office Politics If You Want to Win the Corner Office

Have you ever wondered if playing the game of office politics is necessary to be successful?

Lois Frankel sure has. She’s the author of Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office (Business Plus, 2004). According to Dr. Frankel, the workplace “has rules, boundaries, winners and losers. Not only is it a game, but the rules of the game change from organization to organization and from department to department within an organization.”

Despite what it may say in its employee handbook, every organization – or team – has its own unwritten, unspoken “rules of the game”. Knowing these rules can help you avoid missteps or pitfalls that might hold you back in your career, harm your reputation, or simply prevent you from being at your most productive and effective on your own career path.

Keep your ears open
The unwritten nature of many such rules make them difficult, but not impossible, to decipher. For example, when I asked one senior manager for examples of “rules of the game” in her organization, she said there were two key people of influence in her department: the vice president and a lower-level employee who was considered to be the vice president’s “right hand”. In this organization, unless you were a part of their coalition, you struggled to be heard and have a voice. It was also generally understood that one was to never directly contradict one of those individuals in a meeting, especially if the person was wrong. Such conversations needed to take place privately.

Again, it wasn’t written down anywhere but, if you wanted to get along, let alone get ahead, it was best to learn “the rule” and follow it closely. Only after this senior manager recognized how much these rules governed behavior in her group was she able to speak up, raise her profile, and have her work be valued – all through building stronger relationships with these two key individuals.

The rules are not always negative
In one of my leadership workshops, a participant raised her hand and shared that in her team it was not a good idea to move forward with a new initiative without first gaining the consensus of the entire team. Upon hearing her say that, another participant raised her hand and shared that, in her team, they had an unspoken rule that was almost the opposite. Team members were expected to “act first and ask for forgiveness later.”

Can you imagine how difficult or frustrating it would be trying to get something done in one of those teams if you were playing by the wrong rule? All of that frustration could be alleviated by simply being aware of the rules and acting accordingly.

Here are some other examples I have heard, many of which you may find familiar:

  • You have to play golf (but not better than your boss).
  • Don’t bring a problem without offering a solution.
  • Successful people collaborate and negotiate without getting into conflicts.
  • The CEO prefers to be surrounded by “yes” men and women.
  • Decisions get made in the “meeting before the meeting” and relationships are built in the “meeting after the meeting.”

In life, we all make choices; some harder than others. Case in point: What if a rule crosses a boundary set by your own values or ethics?

Not every rule is worth following
Do you still need to play that game to be successful? For example, one woman told me a lot of valuable business information was shared among smokers on her team as they gathered outside the building to smoke and network. She was very clear she would never become a smoker. She was not willing to play that game and developed a work-around by building her own networks that shared access to the same information.

Parting Words
You don’t need to play every game to be successful in your role. But pay attention to what’s going on, educate yourself about the rules of the game, and then choose to play or not play.

What are some of the unwritten, unspoken rules of the game surrounding you in your team and in your company’s culture? Do you choose to play that game or not? With practice, you can learn to spot them quickly, get a quick read on a team’s culture, understand the rules of the game, and decide how you’ll respond.

Want more? Watch “Win at the Game of Office Politics”, available immediately when you register for the Emerging Women Leaders Webinar Series.

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Jo Miller

A leading authority on women’s leadership, Jo Miller is a sought-after, dynamic, and engaging speaker, delivering more than 70 speaking presentations annually to audiences of up to 1,200 women. Her expertise lies in helping women lead, climb, and thrive in their corporate careers. Jo has traveled widely in Europe, North America, Asia Pacific, and the Middle East to deliver keynotes and teach workshops for women’s leadership conferences, women’s professional associations, and Fortune 1000 corporate women’s initiatives. Jo is CEO of leadership development, consulting and research firm Be Leaderly. Learn more about her speaking engagements at www.JoMiller.net and follow @Jo_Miller on Twitter.

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