May 23

How to manage politics in the workplace


Ah, you’ve finally found it.

The missing piece that’s making your work experience so horrible. You’re probably on the train now, going over and over again about what your toxic colleague just did.

You might think of yourself as being seen as the worst member of the team due to the politics around you
You might think of yourself as being seen as the worst member of the team due to the politics around you

What was he thinking, emailing you, and copying your colleagues about your mistake?

Or you may find yourself complaining yet again to your colleague about the latest thing your competitor has done.

Or you find yourself creating secret WhatsApp chats that don’t have your nasty colleague inside.

One of the biggest problems transiting from school to work is suddenly realising that your colleagues, are not the smiley, nice people anymore.

Instead, you wonder why they are focusing on your mistakes, sharing those mistakes with others, and even trying to throw you under the bus in front of your boss.

Wasn’t it supposed to be a kind and loving workplace?

Weren’t we supposed to be people-driven, focused on trying to build a better world, rather than bash each other up?

In Chinese, there is the saying 笑里藏刀(dagger hidden behind the smile).

Beware. Your colleague may not be that nice after all.

First understand why this happens

There are limited resources in each company. Limited pay rises, promotions, and people to be hired.

You, and your colleagues, are fighting for these scarce resources. And this means that you may end up rubbing each other off the wrong way.

Knowing that you’re competing over limited resources will make you ask less ‘why’, but ‘how’ to overcome these issues.

You might find yourself working incredibly hard, but seemingly getting nowhere
You might find yourself working incredibly hard, but seemingly getting nowhere

Know it, and avoid it

In my first full-time job, I couldn’t understand why my colleague pointed out (in front of my team, in an email copying my team), that I needed to discuss with him before sharing any ideas.

Or why another manager had to copy the rest of my team, about a mistake I had made.

I won’t make any assumptions about what their intentions were.

But in Singapore, there’s more of a ‘name and shame’ culture than other places.

If that’s the culture in your teams, then take time to avoid it.

In Grace Teo-Dixon’s interview with me for Vault, a book we wrote on adulting, she said,

First and foremost, politics is inevitable.

Because what is politics? Politics is, in essence, people having relationships with each other, and trying to influence each other to act in ways which you desire or for desired outcomes.

Don’t think of politics as something evil or bad or negative. Think about it neutrally. Like money. Money is neutral. It is the love of money that leads to greed and other vices.

Politics is closely tied to interest. Everybody has self-interest whether they admit it or not. You need to learn to recognise these interests.

If you don’t want to “play politics” then know enough to get out of the way.

Don’t kill your career by engaging in open fights
Don’t kill your career by engaging in open fights

Then know where the alliances lie

I teach my students to begin by observing who hangs out with whom. And then you remember, A hangs out with B, then B plus C and D go out for lunch very often.

They do this in organisations too, in case you think that organisations are not deliberate about networks. They map networks to figure out who to place in certain positions or teams. We call this organisational network analysis 1.

One thing you can do?

Draw out an organisational network map.

  1. Who seems cozy with whom?
  2. Who doesn’t seem to get along together?
  3. How do you relate to all these colleagues?
What an organisational network map looks like (Credit: Columbia Business School)

Contests in organisations usually occur over promotions and resources. When you compete for certain things, that’s when various interests start kicking in. A natural outcome is for allies and coalitions to form.

If you don’t want to ‘play’, make sure you get out of the way.

If you know that two factions are starting to form and you don’t want to be part of it, then don’t be seen with them.

Whereas if you become a manager, and you have to go sort out the people who are fighting, what do you do? Same thing, you focus on those relationships.

When you know where the alliances are, you will know when you might be treading in a landmine. You might know those times when you walk into a room, and then the room suddenly hushes?

Oh boy, no one ever wants to see this letter, but if you’re not careful, that may just be what happens
Oh boy, no one ever wants to see this letter, but if you’re not careful, that may just be what happens

They might just have been talking about your ally. Or a boss you’re seen to be close to.

These might seem too much to think about, but this is part of growing up to be a professional at work.

Putting your head in the sand and pretending that these don’t matter, is going to hurt you in the longer run.

Then build your own alliances

One of my worst mistakes at work was eating lunches alone. At that time, after eating lunches for 1.5 hours each time, and then having to walk back in the hot, midday sun, I thought,

I can spend my time better.

I started staying in the office.

This worked in the U.K., when I was studying to be a student social worker, but not in Singapore.

I ended up being alone, and having little support for my ideas. I would raise what I thought was a great idea, only to have it met with a stony silence.

Who are your alliances at work?

You might laugh, and tell me,

John, this is work.

Not war.

What’s this about alliances?

Alliances help to speak up for you when you’re not in the room.

They help you influence decisions, and speak up for your point of view when you’re faced with opposition on your idea.

These alliances matter. It is these alliances that will help you feel less lonely at work, and ultimately help you to feel like you’re not just fighting a war, alone.

Take time.

Eat with them, go out with them. But ultimately, recognise that these relationships matter.

Recognise when you can concede the battle, but win the war

Turnarounds are tough.

One of my big mistakes in my first job was thinking that a turnaround in the workplace politics battle was possible.

In February 2021, I was issued with a Performance Improvement Plan.

Even though I was offered a new job in March 2021, I thought that I could turn things around.

You need to know what you want.

Don’t stubbornly hold onto the bone in your jaws, like a dog who’s found a bone to gnaw on.

That can sometimes be what the workplace politics battle can feel like. It may excite your competitive spirit, but it may not be good in the long run.

You may want to win.

And you may be worried that walking away is a sign of weakness. You may be afraid your next interviewer is going to ask why you were not able to stay for longer.

But learning to lose, is just as important as positioning yourself for the win.

Sometimes you need to learn to lose, to finally win.
Sometimes you need to learn to lose, to finally win.

Learning to walk away after a good battle, even though you’ve lost, is really important.

I will close with this story.

When I eventually left my company, I never expected that I would be out of a job for this long.

I thought it would be easy to just get a new job. Turns out that wasn’t the case.

I went for 30 interviews, 109 applications, and still had no jobs.

But this entire workplace battle that I had fought had taught me how to lose, and walk away after the loss.

With that, I built a business. You too, can start a new life. Just don’t be stuck in the battle.

  1. Cross, R., Gardner, H.K. & Crocker, A. (Mar-Apr 2021). For an agile transformation, choose the right people. Harvard Business Review.



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