Have you ever wondered if playing the game of office politics is necessary to be successful?
One of the first good books I read on women and leadership was "Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office” by Lois Frankel. Published in 2004, it holds up well. It was in reading this book that I first learned the importance of understanding the "rules of the game.”
According to Dr. Frankel, the workplace "has rules, boundaries, winners and losers. Not only is it a game, but the rules of the game change from organization to organization and from department to department within an organization.”
Every organization or team has its own unwritten, unspoken rules of the game. Knowing these rules can help you avoid missteps or pitfalls that might hold you back in your career, harm your reputation or simply prevent you from being at your most productive and effective.
Every organization has them but you won’t find these rules written in a company’s employee handbook. They may in fact be the opposite of what is written in the handbook!
For example, one senior manager, when asked for examples of "rules of the game” in her organization, said there were two key people of influence in her department. They were the vice president and a lower-level employee who was considered to be the vice president’s right hand. In this organization, unless you were a part of their coalition, you struggled to be heard and have a voice. Another rule: Never directly contradict one of those individuals in a meeting, even if the person was wrong (and especially if they were wrong). Such conversations needed to take place privately. It was only after this senior manager recognized how much these rules governed behavior in her group was she able to speak up, raise her profile and have her work be valued -- all through building stronger relationships with the two key individuals.
The rules are not always negative
In one of my leadership workshops, a participant raised her hand and shared that in her team it was not a good idea to move forward with a new initiative without first gaining the consensus of the entire team. Upon hearing her say that, another participant raised her hand and shared that in her team, they had an unspoken rule that was almost the opposite. Team members were expected to "act first and ask for forgiveness later.”
Can you imagine how difficult or frustrating it would be trying to get something done in one of those teams if you were playing by the wrong rule? All of that frustration could be alleviated by simply being aware of the rules and acting accordingly. Here are some other examples I have heard:
- You have to play golf (but not better than your boss).
- Don’t bring a problem without bringing a solution.
- Successful people collaborate and negotiate without getting into conflicts.
- The CEO prefers to be surrounded by "yes” men and women.
- No one gets promoted in her first two years on the job.
- Decisions get made in the "meeting before the meeting” and relationships are built in the "meeting after the meeting.”
But what if a rule crosses a boundary set by your own values or ethics? Do you still need to play that game to be successful? For example, one woman told me a lot of valuable business information was shared among smokers on her team as they gathered outside the building to smoke and network. She was very clear she would never become a smoker. She was not willing to play that game and developed a work-around by building her own networks that shared access to the same information.
You don’t need to play every game to be successful in your role. But pay attention to what’s going on and educate yourself about the rules of the game, then choose to play or not play.
What are some of the unwritten, unspoken rules of the game surrounding you in your team and in your company’s culture? Do you choose to play that game or not? With practice, you can learn to spot them quickly, get a quick read on a team’s culture, understand the rules of the game and decide how you’ll respond.