The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.” – Dante

Do Office Politics and Promotions Go Together?

Office politics are as inevitable as bad PowerPoint: the harder you try to avoid them, the more likely they are to find you. Try as you might to escape them, they endure. They are hard wired into our society, our workplace culture, our interpersonal relationships. In the words of Aristotle, “Man is by nature a political animal.” I abhor those political games. Deep down, I think most of us do. As much as we like to pretend that we work and live in a meritocracy, more often than not it seems that promotions, awards, and career-boosting evaluations go the way of those who play the game best. And when you don’t play the game well—or at all—you’re at a disadvantage. But are you really?

Sitting in my brigade headquarters one Sunday morning while serving a tour of staff duty, I watched as the brigade commander paced the building with a document. He finally turned to me and said, “Do you have a few minutes?” “Sir,” I replied, “I’m on staff duty. I have nothing but time for the next 24 hours.” I followed him to his office, where he handed me the document he’d been carrying, a thesis on methods of advanced statistical analysis he’d written as a graduate student. “If I can find a way to automate the charts in here, I know we can use them to improve readiness. No one has been able to figure out how to do it. Would you be willing to take a crack at it?”

If I have one endearing quality, it’s my work ethic. Endearing might be too strong a word, but my work ethic always opened doors for me when my habit of speaking my mind or showing my true thoughts in my expressions seemed to close them. And it was that work ethic that changed my ability to play the game. On staff duty, there wasn’t much to do other than watch the old black-and-white television, answer the phone, and make some occasional security checks. I really didn’t have anything but time, and this project might spare me from the monotony.

So, I wandered into the S-3’s office, typed in the password he kept in his top drawer, and pulled up Harvard Graphics (this was a few years ago, mind you). Several hours and several attempts later, I had a working prototype of the dual-axis, multi-dimensional charts he’d drawn by hand in his thesis. By the following morning when he arrived in the office before physical training, I had a complete set of slides prepared for him. He was happy; I was exhausted.

Maneuvering Around Office Politics

The next morning when I walked into my own battalion’s headquarters, the executive officer was waiting. “I don’t know what you did, but the old man can’t stop talking about you. We have a meeting at brigade at zero-nine-hundred.” It was a little bit of luck, a lot of fortuitous timing (I was working on my own graduate degree in systems management at the time), and the right tools (and knowing where the brigade S-3 kept his password), but it changed my career trajectory. In one weekend, I went from being the lieutenant best know for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to the staff officer with a bright future. I still wasn’t willing to play office politics, but I’d found my own way to maneuver around them.

1. Let your work speak for you.

The quality and timeliness of your work is a true difference maker. It allows you to build a reputation as someone who produces exceptional results consistently, something that tends to be appreciated more when it matters the most. And, quite honestly, when it matters most office politics—and its brown-nosing practitioners—tend to go out the window.

2. Be socially astute.

As someone who had a bad habit of always saying the wrong thing at the worst possible time, this took some practice. Self-awareness is important, but so is other-awareness: I had to learn to read other people—their expressions, body language, voice tone. This is a learned skill that helps you to connect better to others, including the decision makers who tend to set your career trajectory.

3. Build trust.

Have you ever noticed how some people seem to always have a hidden agenda? You don’t want to be one of those people. Be honest with people. Be sincere. Be reliable. As others begin to trust you, reinforce that trust through your actions. Never allow yourself to be one of those people who no one is quite sure they can trust. Remember, the inner circle is often called the circle of trust for a reason.

4. Learn to network.

One of my favorite things to tell people is that “I’m not anti-social, I just hate people.” While that’s not true, I am definitely a natural-born introvert. As a result, networking never came naturally. But, like reading others, I learned. I practiced. I perfected the skill. This is a lot easier if you’re an extrovert and can be downright exhausting if you’re not. It’s not about politics, it’s about connectedness. A network keeps you informed; the lack of a network leaves you vulnerable.

5. Be an influencer.

Office politics might allow some people to break into the inner circle but won’t keep them there. There, you have to earn the right to be there, each and every day. Forget office politics and be the influencer that you need to be, that your boss needs you to be. Provide good advice, produce quality work, and perform to the best of your abilities.

Don’t Get Played

Ultimately, you might not play office politics, but office politics will play you. Keep your head on a swivel; pay close attention to the political maneuvering that goes on around you. You don’t have to play the game to be situationally aware.  And that situational awareness might just save you from an ambush one day.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and former board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.