November 19, 2007

Playing politics

Something Like Life
Nov. 16, 2007

POLITICS is personal.

Whoever said the quote—and mind you, I’ve exhausted all search engines in a vain effort to find its source—was correct.

We live and breathe politics in every context—be it family, career, office, or religion—no matter what situation. No one can run away from it.

We learn politicking—and the art of sucking up to the powers that be—as early as childhood. We try to upstage our siblings and push ourselves to accomplish more than them. Gullible idiots that we are, we do this in the hope that we would be rewarded with a pat on the head from Mom and a few extra pesos in this week’s baon. Or, instead of bullying our gay classmate or stealing lunch from the fat kid in the cafeteria, we stay good for a month so Dad would ever be so inclined to buy us the new PlayStation. Who says being Mommy’s or Daddy’s little pet isn’t a good thing? It’s all about trying to get ahead and get the things we want.

Some of us may even go so far as to create intrigue for our siblings to make them look less worthy in the eyes of our parents. (C’mon guys, don’t look so guilty. Each family has its own tattletale, believe me.)

The same kind of politicking and survival mechanisms are at play in the office as well.

There is the token sucking up to the boss, petty gossiping to make a colleague look bad, and lots of preening to project oneself as better than others and, thus, more deserving of a higher salary, a fatter bonus, or a cushier management position.

But office politics exists for a reason. I think it exists because sometimes just doing a good job doesn’t get you the notice you deserve. And I believe you can manipulate the politicking in your favor, or to help the company achieve its goals.

When people talk about “office politics,” they often mean something underhanded or deceitful. The term has acquired a negative connotation, as in workers who are without merit playing it to get promotions. So some people think it’s better to stay above the fray and keep away from the evil scheming that goes around the office.

But sometimes it helps to wade knee-deep in the muck because you need to be ready for that occasional stab in the back by people, some of whom you even trusted. It would be most naïve for you to think that everything is all cheery in the office and everyone is your friend. Having worked for 20 years in several aspects of the communication business, I know whereof I speak. No matter how you keep your nose clean, there will be envious people who will come after you when you least expect it.

By keeping your head above the politicking that goes on, you are bound to miss out on the office chatter and maneuvering that may affect your job, and eventually harm your career in the process.

You need to know the real power behind the throne, or the power brokers in the company. The president of the company may be the one who signs your paycheck, but you need to be friends with the chief accountant to make sure your name isn’t delisted from the payroll just because you misplaced the receipts from last month’s assignments, for example. So, go ahead, suck up to the chief accountant. Make her feel beautiful by paying her the attention she deserves.

You cannot just sit idly by your desk and wait for promotions to be laid down at your cubicle’s door. So you need to find out the needs of your bosses, and supply them, or exploit the weaknesses of your colleagues, to be able to sprint on ahead. If the boss needs an occasional drinking buddy to relieve him of his stress, then gladly volunteer for the job.

It doesn’t sound as bad as it reads on print. By exploiting your colleagues’ weaknesses, for example, I don’t mean for you to be shoving them in the mud as you destroy their reputations with your bosses. I have known a number of people who tried to get ahead in their careers by doing just that. But because they were ultimately unmasked for the nontalents that they were and are, and their petty scheming was uncovered, they have since disappeared into the void where all dishonest, incompetent and unwanted fools reside. (I believe in karma, too, so there.)

Exploiting your colleagues’ weaknesses means performing your tasks better than them, or always going the extra mile to impress your bosses. When one idea or concept is asked of you, present three. When you are asked to list down 10 names of possible customers, give your boss 20, and make sure you’ve done the research on all of them. (For some reason, it is easy for us Filipinos to fall into a "pwede na" attitude, and offer up a mediocre service, instead of an outstanding one. The jury’s still out on the origins of this disgraceful Filipino attitude.)

Of course, office politics has its downside as well. When you outperform your colleagues, you will most likely be the favorite subject of every coffee break and be the hottest topic in the restroom. In the offchance you are promoted, people may gossip behind your back about how you exactly earned it, no matter how deserving you are of the step up the corporate ladder.

Like, I’ve been called "anak ng Diyos" a few times in my career, but only because I know how to be friendly with the bosses. I’ve never been one to take advantage of such relationships, except to get extra vacation time off, or free dinners. Of course, some colleagues may have thought otherwise, but there you go, there will always be arrogant co-workers whose inept play at office politics fails. And they become jealous of you. They fail to see that in criticizing your accomplishments, they project their own mediocrity and incompetence. (See, it doesn’t always pay to be a’s a burden I must carry my whole life. Wahahaha!)

It doesn’t hurt to be “ma-PR” with the bosses, like one former officemate who once bravely introduced herself to the owner of the company. But to this day, she lingers nearly at the bottom of the barrel—because she failed to do her PR work with the middle managers whom she constantly resents. Poor dear. She is so puffed about her supposed genius that she just doesn’t get it. She sucked up to the wrong people.

If by being an excellent worker you are pronounced a bootlicker, you can try to change your colleagues’ impression by showing them how your attitude can help the entire team or the department get ahead. Present ideas that will help your colleagues see how they, too, will benefit. And if they have a better idea, help them implement it, so you can be assured that you will be included when the rewards are handed out for a job well done.

One of the most precious investments you can make in your company is personal relationships. Treat your colleagues with a great deal of respect, show them how much you appreciate them (a simple “thank you” goes a long way), because people like feeling good about themselves. You can harness these personal relationships when calling in favors such as volunteering for a task without extra pay. Of course, there will be those who are just plain hardheaded and uncooperative no matter what. Leave them behind. You know where you’ll find them when you’re already miles high in your career: still at the bottom where you saw them last.

Office politics doesn’t have to be a nasty thing. You can use it to your advantage to get ahead in your career, or help others improve their contribution to the company. In the end, it is not only your organization that emerges the winner but you as well.

(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror. Photo from BusinessMirror.)

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