When you enter the workforce, you may quickly realize that your job is not just to do what you were hired for, but also to compete in the world of office politics.
“Avoiding office politics is like trying to avoid air, because if you have more than two people working together, you are going to have politics in some form or fashion,” said Marie G. McIntyre, a workplace psychologist and author of “Secrets to Winning at Office Politics.” “Politics to me is really about managing the relationships at work in order to accomplish whatever your goals are.”
In the positive sense, office politics are just strategies to increase your influence to get business goals done, McIntyre said. But these maneuvers become harmful power games when the player is more concerned about increasing their own status than preserving working relationships.
It starts to hurt the business when the main focus is on “How do I make me more important?” McIntyre said, because “part of being effective at work is effectively working with and collaborating with other people.”
When a colleague tries to diminish you and limit your influence at work, that’s a petty power play. Once you know how these players operate, you can create countermoves to defeat their game, McIntyre and other experts told HuffPost.
Here’s how to handle five common maneuvers that can have a real, negative effect on your work reputation.
1. They try to supervise your work but aren’t your boss.
The “hallway monitor” is a self-appointed compliance officer or a “supervisor of people that they’ve not been given authority to supervise,” McIntyre said. They have a need to make sure things are done according to their way of what’s right.
“There are a surprisingly large number of people who just take it upon themselves to monitor their co-workers and report things they think are not appropriate, or don’t like, or things they think are errors to management,” McIntyre said, citing the story of a co-worker who kept sending emails about mistakes they thought their co-worker had made to that person’s boss.
Pushback strategy: Let the hallway monitor know you don’t appreciate this feedback, or tell your superior.
If you are getting feedback about how your work should be done from someone who has no authority over you, you can let them know that your boss doesn’t have problems with the way you work.
That language could sound like, “I’m sure you feel like you are being helpful by sending emails to our manager, but it really isn’t your job to supervise me. He never has problems with my work, so I would really appreciate it if you didn’t do that,” McIntyre said.
McIntyre said she personally thinks it is more useful to go to the boss in this scenario. Let them know your concerns about the oversight with a neutral question like, “Do you have any desire for her to oversee my work?”
2. They don’t invite you to the meeting or event you need to attend.
Petty office power players often use exclusion from events or meetings as a control maneuver. “They want more control and they think they’ll have that with you not there. Or they just don’t want your point of view in that meeting,” McIntyre said.
Pushback strategy: Call out the behavior and invite yourself.
If you hear about a wrongful exclusion before the event happens, invite yourself if appropriate, McIntyre said.
Rahkal C. D. Shelton, a project manager and author of “Woosah: A Survival Guide for Women of Color Working in Corporate,” said she was not invited to her co-workers’ group work lunches in a job she held. One strategy she deployed was to acknowledge the behavior and ask direct questions like, “Are you ladies heading to lunch later in the week?”
“The shunning game can be insidious because the perpetrator may claim they just forgot to invite you. Shelton advises being vigilant if you notice this behavior and documenting it through personal emails to yourself.”
If you’re being left out of lunches or outings that include supervisors as well as peers, “then that’s more of a concern,” Shelton said. In these cases, Shelton recommends reporting this exclusion because you don’t want to miss out on valuable information that is discussed. You can bring it up to your boss and ask about upcoming opportunities by saying, “Hey, what’s coming down the pipeline? Are there any extra expectations?” Shelton said.
The shunning game can be insidious because the perpetrator may claim they just forgot to invite you. Shelton advises being vigilant if you notice this behavior and documenting it through personal emails to yourself in case you need to build a case later. “You can’t get away with the ‘I forgot again’ multiple times because then you’re singing the same song,” she said.
If your power-hungry colleague claims they simply forgot you, you can also approach the behavior as an error that you are asking them to correct. For example, if you are being excluded from important emails, McIntyre advises emailing back with a statement like, “‘I noticed that I got left off the email list for the last couple of communications about this project. I’m sure that was an oversight. I need to let you know I need to be on that list.’ And if necessary, copy your boss.”
3. They invade your space.
Unless you have given someone permission, no one should be eating your food or getting too close to your workspace. Some people are unfortunately just bad with personal space. But others who violate your boundaries are controlling co-workers who think they can do what they want regardless of how you may feel and invade your personal space in an effort to assert their dominance.
McIntyre recalled a colleague who picked up a document from her desk in front of her. “I was sitting in my chair in my office. He walked around behind my desk, reached over my shoulder, and picked up the document that I had had in front of me. I just took it back and turned in my chair and said, ‘You need something, Mike?’ And he went away.”
Shelton said she experienced this type of space violation with a boss who would stand over her to have conversations while she was sitting down, which made her feel helpless.
Pushback strategy: Say the action is unwanted and get the person out of your space.
When your boundaries gets crossed, draw the line. Pleasantly but firmly assert yourself, such as by saying, “I know you have a habit of picking things up, and I would appreciate if you didn’t do this,” McIntyre said.
McIntyre said that if you can’t physically get back whatever the person has touched, you can say, “Can I have that back, please? That’s something I’m working on.”
When her boss would invade her space and tower over her, Shelton’s strategy was to stand up, too. “I would scoot back further to cause some distance, or oftentimes I would stand with her. I would get up and engage her in the conversation so by then we’re eye level,” Shelton said.
“I was sitting in my chair in my office. He walked around behind my desk, reached over my shoulder, and picked up the document that I had had in front of me. I just took it back and turned in my chair and said, ‘You need something, Mike?’ And he went away.”
4. They copy your boss into your emails.
“A lot of times, it’s a form of intimidation, especially when they are cc’ing multiple people,” Shelton said about this tactic, which suggests, “We’ve got the magnifying glass on you.”
Pushback strategy: Get ahead of the email copier by communicating with the person they are trying to rope in.
“If it’s pulling your boss into something and there might be a misunderstanding, you really need to do damage control with your boss,” McIntyre said. That damage control can look like, “Bob copied you on this email, we’re in the middle of the conversation about this, let me explain what the issue is,” she said.
Shelton said you can acknowledge that your co-worker copied your boss into the conversation in your reply, and close that you will chat offline with your boss with a statement like, “Thank you, I will follow up with this person offline.”
If you know you have dropped the ball on an issue, get ahead of your petty colleague and schedule time with your boss before they’re copied on the conversation. Then you can counter with, “I already have this on their calendar. Thank you, it’s not necessary,” Shelton said.
5. They frame your work as their own.
Credit-stealers come in many forms in the workplace. They can claim they did more for the project than they did. Or they can sell your idea as theirs.
Pushback: Take credit back by citing sources and changing I’s to We’s.
If the theft happens out loud, you can chime in by noting the full list of contributors: “That was great work. I’d like to include that we worked together,” Shelton said.
One graceful way to ensure proper credit all around is to team up with your colleagues and give kudos to an idea originator. This amplification strategy was reportedly practiced by female staffers in the Obama administration.
“When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author,” reported Juliet Eilperin for The Washington Post. “This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution — and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.”
If credit-grabbing is happening through email, continue the conversation without noting the obvious theft attempt because “that just makes you look silly,” McIntyre said.
For example, if someone who was tangentially related to the project is trying to position themselves as the expert in an email chain, McIntyre suggests a reply like, “‘Thank you for that information. As the project manager, I’ll certainly be glad to include that in my report.’ So [you’re] restating [your] authority as the project manager without saying, ‘Hey, I’m the project manager.’”