You’re an ambitious young person at work in your first “real” job. Sure, you probably held a job in high school to pay the bills and let you save up for when you graduate, but this is different. You might have worked as a server or a cashier. Now you’re where you dreamed of going.
Gone are the days of petty gossip, cliques looking to undermine you, and having to worry about what people are going to think about what you wore or what they’re going to say about your ambitions. Or so you think.
While we all hope and dream to be in a workplace free of politics, gossip, and childish games, few are so lucky. Being the fresh, ambitious young person in a workplace can make the likelihood that we’ll run into office politics even higher. They might underestimate you for your youth. Or they might envy your ambition and drive that got you to where you are today. People get jealous. People are skeptical. It’s a fact of life and something that can infect even the best workplaces.
If you’re an ambitious young person who wants to create value in the workplace, then you’ll have to find a way to navigate office politics without playing the game. This is a guide for ambitious young people to avoid office politics.
Rule 1: Don’t Play The Game
Note that this is titled, “An Ambitious Young Person’s Guide to Avoiding Office Politics,” not, “An Ambitious Young Person’s Guide to Playing Office Politics.” The first and foremost rule of office politics is to not play it.
This sounds obvious enough but can be difficult when coworkers might get mired in gossip or petty work. They might say nasty things about you, be passive aggressive to you, or might try to actively undermine you. You’ll be tempted to fight back against them. You might be tempted to say bad things about them, go to a manager, or generally take up a negative attitude towards them. Don’t do this.
First of all, you should view yourself as above petty office politics. If you begin to participate in it, you’ll find that it is like most gossip and like actual politics — it’s addictive and dangerous for the soul. You’ll find yourself becoming more paranoid, not less. If you can engage in it, who can’t, after all? You’ll make yourself more defensive, more worried about others saying things, and will only exacerbate the problem.
On a more practical level, engaging in office politics when you’re a new, young worker is just not a wise thing to do. Chances are that the people already engaged in it hold more clout than you and are more entrenched. While you might be able to work up some alliances and build your own clique, you’re more likely just to win yourself a reputation as a troublemaker and somebody the managers cannot afford to keep on with how much you rile people up.
Remember, the first rule of office politics is to not engage in office politics.
Rule 2: Treat Everybody As Neutral
The second rule of avoiding office politics is to step back and treat everybody as neutral. The nature of politics is to divide and classify people. There are “the good people” and “the bad people;” there are “Joe’s people” and “Cheryl’s people;” there are “the management people” and “the workplace people.”
This is exactly the wrong way to approach things. Instead of treating people as automatically divided between classes, treat everybody as neutral. Don’t assume that somebody is against you because they’re friends with the person giving you a hard time. Don’t assume that somebody is for you because they don’t like said person. Don’t assume that the person giving you a hard time is a bad person — treat them as neutral.
Imagine that this person normally gives you a hard time — makes you redo work, says things about you behind your back, and is generally a pain in your butt. You could treat her as a negative. You could avoid her, try not to do work around her, and even not invite her to your Christmas party that you’ve planned for all your coworkers.
Or you could treat her as neutral. She probably expects you to treat her as a negative. When you send out Christmas cards to all your colleagues, send one out to her. When you are doing work in the office, don’t avoid her. If you treat her as a neutral, you begin to disarm her by depriving her of any possible complaints about you thinking that you are better than her or are anti-social and “not just one of us.”
Similarly, don’t needlessly warm up to anybody who appears opposite to her. If you do, you give more ammunition to her for gossip, rumors, and general unfriendliness.
Treat everybody as having a zeroed out score in your mind when you start. Work to up that score through just being a genuine, good person. Every time you engage in office politics or view that person as a negative, you get points taken out of your own score. Your goal should be to have the highest score possible and have no low scores for your coworkers.
Rule 3: Remember for Whom You Work
While you should treat everybody as fundamentally neutral — nobody is “good” or “bad” — you need to remember why you are there and for whom you work.
You work for the owners. In your immediate workspace, this is the CEO or President, who is accountable to the shareholders. Depending on the structure of the company, the shareholders might be the President himself, external private investors, public investors, or a limited number of partners. The CEO and President are responsible for running the company in the best manner possible. You are responsible for helping them do this.
If you have a general manager who is mired in office politics, don’t get mired with him! Don’t go to war with this manager and make sure to treat him as neutral. But always remember that you don’t work for the general manager — you work for the person who brought you in: the CEO. Even managers, who are accountable to the CEO as well, get caught up in workplace politics and can be a major pain when they seem aligned against you. If appeasing them directly counters the purpose for which you were brought in by the CEO, then remember that you work for that CEO, not the general manager.
If you can do this without alerting the CEO — because this, too, will be interpreted as office politics by the general manager and your coworkers — do so. If you absolutely cannot, tactfully engage your CEO to let them know that you want to be of help for them. Make the CEO aware of your concerns and signal to him or her your dedication to the mission of creating value for them. Make it clear that you are above office politics and you’re primary goal is to learn to become a better worker. Don’t request anything in particular — just make it clear that you are there for them and their mission of maximizing profits for the shareholders.
Office politics can take any awesome job and quickly turn it into something you dread. The best way of disarming its power over you is to remind yourself that you are above gossip, cliques, and childish games, treating nobody as inherently for or against you, and remembering why you are there — to create value.