It’s a simple, real-world fact, but it’s one that most people still do not “get”: The majority of people who lose their jobs do so not because they made some costly mistake, but because they didn’t understand workplace politics. And if you do make a mistake on the job, being politically savvy will help you keep your job.
My definition of politics is “the difference between what is right—and what is effective.” How often in your career have you been right, but found that everyone hated you for it? That’s the gap you need to understand. It’s not about taking advantage of others for your own benefit; it’s about understanding the unspoken messages of your workplace and tapping into the flow of power to achieve your goals. Think of it as “how to shake the tree to get the resources you need.”
Your most important political alliance is your relationship with your boss. Start by asking yourself, “Do I actively manage my relationship with my boss—or do I just try not to make him or her mad?” Most people do only the latter. Turn that around and start creating a more positive, effective relationship with your boss by answering these key questions:
1. What is the method of communication with which my boss is most comfortable?
Is it face-to-face, e-mail, or voice mail? Sarah had a boss who responded best to voice mail. He wasn’t big on face-to-face because it required too much time. He could return five voice mails in airports faster than he could type e-mails on his Blackberry. If you voice- mailed him, you almost always got an answer the same day, especially when he was busy. This strategy also made her look very self-sufficient because Sarah wasn’t always in his office asking questions. On the rare occasion when she asked for time on his calendar, he would move her to the head of the line because he knew it was important.
2. During what time of day is my boss most receptive to talking?
Your boss may be a morning person, or more open to longer conversations as the day winds down and the phones stop ringing. If your boss is talkative and you need a quick answer, check his calendar or understand his lunch schedule and go see him 15 minutes before he has a meeting or before he typically leaves for lunch. Is there a particular day of the week that is better for your boss than others? One governmental group waits until Wednesdays to ask for anything important from its manager, because on Tuesdays the boss meets with the Board of Commissioners and Mondays are devoted to preparation for that meeting.
3. When my boss needs advice, whom does he consult?
For those of you, who have seen the Godfather films, think of this advisor as your boss’s “Consiglieri.” Build a good relationship with this person so he or she says good things about you to your boss. Remember—this is someone to whom your boss listens and whose opinion he or she greatly values.
4. What are the last three business books my boss read?
Any book your manager spends valuable time reading, you should read. I know one manager who wanted funding in the budget for an additional person but knew his boss hated any increase in headcount. His boss was a great fan of the book Good to Great. Even though the manager was not a big reader, he read the book because his boss valued its insights. The manager was able to justify his request for the new position by saying he needed “the right people on the bus in the right seats” (wording that comes straight from Good to Great). This resonated with his boss and he got the approval to hire the new person.
You also can be politically savvy by giving your boss the gift of a business book you’ve recently read and admire. This allows you to use the author as an expert, to convert your boss to your way of thinking. Be sure to inscribe the book on the inside fly leaf and sign your name. This way, every time your boss opens the book, he or she is reminded of the gift. And if your manager lends it to someone, you will appear to be smart, cutting edge, and someone whose opinion your boss values.
If your boss is not a reader, you can still use this strategy. Simply select a book that is short but packed with insights, so your boss will be willing to spend an hour reading it. And never put the cost of the book on your expense report. This is a gift—and an investment in your career. Surely your career is worth $20 or $25!
Here are three quick “political rules” for successfully dealing with bosses:
Rule #1: Stay neutral about new bosses. When you get a new boss, you will be barraged by people asking you what you think of him or her. These people will repeat what you say throughout the organization, so say this: “She seems very smart, but I haven’t worked with her for very long.” This is both noncommittal and positive.
Rule #2: When your boss says something nice about you, do not deflect the compliment with modesty or with humor by cracking the joke about “maybe this is a good time to ask for a raise.” This devalues the compliment and creates an awkward situation for everyone present, even if they know you are kidding. Here’s the perfect reply: “Thank you so much. That means a great deal to me coming from you.” You now have tripled the chances your manager will say more nice things about you in the future.
Rule #3: Never speak badly about your boss in the workplace—even if everyone else calls him “the spawn of Satan.” By not saying anything bad, you send a clear, unspoken message throughout your organization that you are patient, resilient, and loyal, all of which are great qualities to have. You enhance your value and reputation—simply by keeping quiet.
© Margaret Morford