New and emerging leaders often relish stepping into a new role. But despite assurance, the often-complex social structure of an office needs special attention. So how do new leaders fit in and navigate their way around workplace politics?
The easiest way to settle into a new leadership role is to approach it with knowledge and confidence. Then, office politics and power dynamics become much easier to navigate. Recognizing formal and informal interactions, power distribution, and authority helps greatly with relationship building.
Workplace politics can be both obvious and subtle. As you step into a new role, the challenge is to establish your place on the hierarchy as soon as possible. This piece covers how to deal with new role politics in the new American workplace.
What Are Workplace Politics—Exactly?
In many people’s minds, politics is a negatively charged word. But politics, in this sense, is understanding and interacting with the flow of power through your organization. Politics, like any power, is alone neither good nor bad. Workplace politics are the intentions, motivations, and execution of navigating these power structures. The negative connotation of workplace politics often focuses on the below notable examples:
- Compete for attention/position, visibly or subtly
- Seek approval by playing to the gallery
- Office gossip
- Slander, including character assassination
- Undermining the reputation of others
However, our definition of politics covers much more than these often toxic examples of BAD politics. The strategies we will present later emphasize GOOD politics, focusing instead on productive momentum like managing up and strengthening your influence at work.
The bar chart below is the result of a poll of 2,300 North American workers and their outlook on office politics. It reflects the dysfunctional relationship US workers have with workplace politics in the US.
Although every place of work has office politics, that doesn’t mean all working environments or cultures are toxic. You can choose to rise above the drama by focusing on the work and people that matter most.
Why Managing Up Matters
Managing up is a workplace politics strategy to help keep you ahead of the game. Practicing positive strategies can help you focus on making your boss’s job easier on them. That intention helps improve your relationship, influence, and career development opportunities.
Again, it’s about your motivation, intention, and execution in navigating the power structure that makes the difference between GOOD and BAD politics. But before you can manage relationships with others, you first need to be able to manage yourself.
How to Manage Yourself
Managing yourself means owning your actions and proactively taking control of workplace relations. Leaders who master relationships have integrity, empathy, and compassion. They are self-confident, actively listen to others, and display emotional balance. These traits are not always natural, but they can be self-taught or developed through professional coaching.
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There are a few misconceptions about managing up, so here’s what it’s not.
- It’s not being inauthentic or fake
- Kowtowing to your boss
- Saying yes to everything
- Playing into office politics
- Covering up mistakes made by your boss
- Tolerating bad management
Navigating negative office politics means managing up and striking the right relationship balance with superiors. This relationship also affects how you manage the team members under you.
Adapting to your manager’s style is the best approach for managing up. However, leaders need to be proactive and own the relationship. Also, your expectations should be clear to avoid undermining your own authority.
Being mindful of the seven points below will help strengthen your managing up strategy:
- Get to know your boss, their techniques, behaviors, priorities, and goals
- Learn how they communicate to those above them in the corporate hierarchy
- Be solution-oriented and proactive by taking charge where appropriate
- Actively communicate and keep your manager in the loop
- Ask for constructive feedback and guidance when needed
- Give your boss confidential feedback where appropriate
- Adapt your communication style, tone, and language accordingly
Managing Down & Sideways
Influential leaders don’t only focus on managing up, but also down and sideways. Of course, much of the latter results from successfully managing up. But it’s wise to manage in all directions to maintain persuasive leadership skills.
The graphic below summarizes managing up, down, and sideways.
Positive Workplace Politics | Managing Up, Down, and Sideways
By managing up, you develop a positive relationship with your boss, which affects how you manage down. When you manage down successfully, you become an effective team player and respected leader who gets results. Finally, by managing sideways, you build a cooperative spirit between different departments within your organization.
Understanding Power Dynamics in Workplace Politics
Workplace politics is the back-and-forth relationship between power dynamics and human interactions. And it’s those interactions that form a workplace culture.
Politics in the workplace is the control or influence one person or group has over another. Logic assumes that leaders hold the most power and influence by their position of authority. Officially, this is known as legitimate or formal power. But effective leadership doesn’t rely on a single form of influence; it uses a mix of both hard and soft power.
#1 Authority: Legitimate Power in Workplace Politics
When it comes to workplace politics, authority (legitimate power) is not enough. Formal authority comes with leadership titles and your organization’s hierarchy. But, it doesn’t make you great at your job. Furthermore, if the authority goes to your head, you risk losing the respect and cooperation of those you lead. Thus, consider your authority as a loan rather than a right.
Solution: Authority is an excellent tool when used correctly. The secret is in how you wield the authority. Using it in beneficial ways for your team and leading by example can help transfer the power from a position’s authority into personal influence. It will grow if you couple your legitimate power with equity and a genuine desire to drive good outcomes for all involved.
#2 How Expert Power Alters Power Dynamics
Is there someone in your team who is the sole authority on something? Such a person has expert power when others don’t share their acquired knowledge or vital skills. Thus, power dynamics can change if an “expert” decides to exploit their expertise. Consequently, you may feel coerced into doing what they ask or demand. And if you refuse, the specialist may threaten to leave or become less obliging.
Solution: Remember that an expert is a resource for the common good and needs to be approached from that perspective while ensuring they feel seen and heard. One way to improve their position is to explore cross-skill training and move an expert toward peer observation and learning so they can share their expertise and reduce the burden they currently shoulder alone.
#3 Influence: How Referent Power Alters Power Dynamics
Leaders with loyal teams tend to possess referent power: influence. They are well-respected and well-liked due to their interpersonal or workplace relational skills. If leaders lack influence, they may lose their authority and influence on subordinates who have it.
When Influence Turns on You
Imagine, for example, that you need to hold someone on your team accountable for a misstep. If their high-likability makes them friendly with your boss, it could create a complicated power dynamic. Yes, you have authority over them. But they have a higher degree of influenc, which can complicate matters if they use it against you.
Solution: Be honest, transparent, and lead by example to develop your interpersonal skills. Show genuine interest in your team members. Engage in active listening, giving your full attention. Until then, set clear roles and duties for your staff as you step into the new leadership role. Remind them of these rules if ever there’s a threat of reference power.
Not every leader can possess and call upon all types of workplace power. However, they can recognize the existence of power dynamics and learn to use them to best advantage.
Other Power Dynamics that Impact Workplace Politics
New leaders should know the types of workplace power at play within their company. Understanding power dynamics helps you to shape your department and team. Other types of power to familiarize with include coercive, reward, informational, and connection.
|Coercive Power||Threats of punishment against others are used to force people to comply with particular demands.|
|Reward Power||Reward with bonuses, raises, promotion, extended leave, etc., to those who follow instructions|
|Informational Power||Controlled access or the possession of vital information needed by others.|
|Connection Power||Influence attained by the acquaintance or favor of someone in high authority.|
People don’t follow powerless leaders. But the power you use to lead depends on many factors, including your role, type of work, and teams. But in general, effective leadership is about finding and owning your voice and applying the right amount of soft and hard power skills.
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The Importance of Building Peer Relationship in Workplace Politics
You spend many hours with your coworkers. Therefore, peer relationship building is imperative for your career, so choose your circle wisely. Networking fundamentals are as much about giving value to others as receiving it. And as a leader, you will also want to connect with people outside of your immediate work circle and create relationships across departments.
Likeminded work peers will share in both your difficulties and triumphs. The idea is to form a network with those who share similar values, beliefs, and resources as you. These colleagues support and encourage each other, especially during critical times. Likewise, keep those who bring bad energy at arm’s length wherever possible.
Why Every Leader Needs a Friend
Not everyone wants to be overly friendly with their coworkers, and that’s fine. And it often pays to err on the side of formality in a super-competitive work environment.
But having at least one close friend in the workplace can pay off. Around 70% of participants in a study said that solid relationships are vital for workplace happiness. And a Gallup poll found that friendships at work result in better engagement and productivity .
Handling Gossip in the Workplace
The worst type of workplace politician is the chronic office gossip. These people talk about others behind their backs and share information that isn’t common knowledge. Gossiping employees spend an average of 52 minutes daily on the activity .
There are several reasons why gossip is rife in places of work. Some find it helpful to release feelings of anger or frustration. But at a more sinister level, it has negative connotations. For instance, when used to engage in personal conflicts and character assassination.
How Can New Leaders Handle Gossip?
Your first step in a new position is learning the existing culture so you can identify gossip. Not everything said about someone in their absence is gossip. It may be common in the existing workplace dynamic for people to sarcastically share positive notes and lighthearted criticism as dry humor with zero malicious intent.
You can easily identify gossip by recognizing it as a signal of a lack of trust in workplace politics. In your new role, are people genuinely connecting and resolving conflict healthily and productively? These situations are the breeding grounds for gossip.
If you identify gossip, it can be easy to assume you simply need to nip it in the bud. However, gossip is a symptom: the effect, not the cause. You must understand there is a deeper issue presenting itself as gossip. Your responsibility as a leader is to rebuild and strengthen the lost trust, so there’s no cause for the gossip to appear again. It’s a more effective and long-term solution than continuing to police and punish bad behavior.
When You Are the Source of Gossip
Use your power to make space for the emotional safety of everyone involved and engage in healthy conflict resolution. And if you find yourself as a subject of such gossip, move to address it head-on respectfully with those involved.
In these situations, it can be helpful to bring in your boss or another person in the organization with the authority to serve as a facilitator. Use your power to foster relationships and build a good workplace for everyone involved.
Be an upbeat role model, lead by example, and avoid distancing yourself from your team. Instead, consider maintaining an open-door policy. Lastly, be transparent, share praise among your team when it’s right, and keep everyone in the loop.
You will never be able to depoliticize a modern workplace. So, leaders must navigate the political landscape by making themselves accessible and transparent. This approach can have a significant influence on reducing the impact of organizational politics.
For some, apt political behavior is a natural trait. But others must learn to cope with workplace politics through education and or professional coaching.