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Navigating Workplace Politics

Whether we like it or not, workplace politics are at play in every organization. Workplace politics encompasses the power, authority process, and behaviors in a particular workplace.

That said, it's important to remember that not all politics are bad! With healthy emotional intelligence and proactive communication, you can ensure you don't fall into the gossip trap.

Both formal and informal hierarchies exist in all companies. As long as each person is working for the good of the company, upholding its values, goals, and objectives, both types of hierarchies can work together to lead to the success of the company. Unfortunately, not only do poor workplace politics severely damage employee morale, but when individuals take advantage of workplace politics for personal gain, it can even harm the organization's bottom line!

A formal hierarchy, which defines the reporting structure, is set by company leadership and is typically based on the vision, goals, resources, and personnel available within the organization. It sets up the initial political power structure of the organization; however, as each new person is removed or added to the organization, this power structure will change and must be occasionally adjusted. Being high up on formal hierarchies can be referred to as having Positional Power.

Almost as soon as the formal structure is set up, an informal hierarchy starts to develop, and its main focus is information! The more information a person has access to, and the more valuable that information is, the higher that person will appear to rise in the informal hierarchy. Therefore, the person who knows all the good gossip holds the most power! Being high up on informal rankings can be referred to as having Personal Power.

One of the critical currencies used by those wishing to gain personal power, usually in a negative way, is rumors. As frustrating and challenging as it may be, it is essential to face rumors head-on. Fortunately, there are a few practical steps that you can take to minimize their influence. First, ask trusted friends or close team members to keep an ear out. What are people saying - what rumors are out there? Second, and perhaps more importantly, ensure open communication about what you and your department are doing. Make sure you share plenty of information at the appropriate times with the right people, and there should be a minimal basis for rumors. If you hear a true rumor, address the issue as openly and soon as possible. Your stakeholders must know about the situation from you before they can hear it as a rumor. Even if (and in some cases, especially if) the rumor is false, you still need to address it with your stakeholders. Let everybody know that things are going well. This will help negate any effect of the rumor before it has time to build up.

While the occasional rumor is virtually unavoidable, research suggests that those with excellent social and emotional intelligence are more likely to contribute to a positive work environment. According to the co-founder of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), Daniel Goleman, Social and emotional intelligence involves understanding your feelings and behaviors, as well as those of others, and applying this knowledge to your interactions and relationships. He goes on to describe five interrelated sets of Social and Emotional Competencies:

  • Self-awareness involves knowing & acknowledging your emotions, strengths, and challenges, and more importantly, knowing how your emotions affect your behavior.

  • Self-management involves knowing how to control your behaviors and moods and setting and working toward goals.

  • Social awareness is the ability to understand and respect the perspectives of others and to apply this knowledge to interactions with people from diverse backgrounds.

  • Good relationship skills mean knowing how to establish and keep rewarding and positive relationships with friends, family, and others from various backgrounds.

  • Responsible decision-making involves having the ability to identify the impact of your choices on yourself and others and using empathy, relationship skills, and self- and social awareness to make decisions.

The critical thing to remember is that, unlike IQ, social and emotional intelligence can be learned. No matter your age, you can influence your social and emotional self to navigate the nuances of workplace politics!


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