The office: protect your back

How to avoid becoming a victim of the Don Brash in your office.

The officeDon Brash’s toppling of his friend Rodney Hide to gain the ACT party leadership was politics at its most ruthless. Brash was not content to wound, he went in for the kill, ending Hide’s political career.

Office politicking can get just as dirty when the stakes are high. Restructurings, redundancies and increased workloads as organisations “do more with less” rarely bring out the best in people. “When there’s an increase in competition, people are more likely stab colleagues in the back,” says UK business psychologist Jane Clarke.

People who find office politics distasteful are likely to think the answer is to buckle down and work extra hard. Big mistake. As Alain de Botton points out in his book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, “To get ahead, workers must acquire a range of skills for which ordinary life does not usually prepare them and that may indeed run counter to the codes of much of ordinary, moral behaviour.”

However, for some public sector workers, it’s not so much about getting ahead as simply holding on to their jobs.  So how do you make sure you don’t become a victim of your office’s Don Brash?

The first step is to wake up to the politicking going on around you. Understanding political power within any workplace is not as simple as studying the organisation chart. Power and influence don’t necessarily correlate with job titles. The boss’s PA, for example, may wield more influence than a senior manager coasting towards retirement. The junior in the IT department who will drop everything to come to your rescue can be a powerful ally. Be on the right side of people who count.

It pays to build relationships with those who have informal power and be part of multiple networks so you know what’s brewing. However, gossiping or badmouthing colleagues is not a good idea. At the same time, you don’t want to be seen as disapproving and morally superior. Listen but don’t pass it on.

Being professional at all times will ensure you are not giving rivals ammunition they can use against you. That means never getting personal or losing your temper, being cheerful and positive and getting your work done with the minimum of fuss. It also means being politely assertive and not taking on an unmanageable workload.

Co-workers can be your allies or enemies depending on how you behave towards them. Acknowledging a colleague’s point of view, sharing knowledge and collaborating will ensure you are seen a team player able to get on with people. Remember, though, that it’s a professional relationship. Choose carefully what personal information to share. It’s okay to talk about your partner’s gallstone operation but confiding your penchant for cross-dressing may pose a risk.

It’s usually easy to spot potential backstabbers. They’re the ones with the subtle putdowns at meetings. Rather than avoid them, get to know them better and  find out what makes them tick. The dictum, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” applies.

Finally, it’s stating the obvious to say you should value your union membership.  That’s independent advice and help in your corner when you need it.


This article is from the June 2011 issue of the PSA Journal. You can read back issues of the Journal by clicking here.