, , , ,

One of the most grateful moments I ever experienced at work was when my boss made a point of explaining a particular episode of office politics very clearly to me. An attorney from another department had heard that I had some experience in an area of the law connected with a project he was currently working on, and he’d asked me if I wouldn’t mind pitching in. He was hearty and amiable on the phone, and I was still new enough to the firm that I was concerned about making a good impression, so of course I agreed readily.

Later, when I mentioned this to the partner to whom I directly reported, he received the news guardedly. After a moment’s thought, he explained: “It’s great that you’re getting yourself out there in the rest of the firm, but don’t commit too much to this project. This attorney who called you is on the rise in this firm, but he’s not actually very good. A lot of what he takes credit for, he really gets other people to do for him. When it comes down to it, the folks here in this department are your homeboys. We’ll watch your back. This guy won’t.”

What I liked about that conversation (besides the sight of an older distinguished white professional declaring himself my “homeboy”) was that it made clear that the supposedly impenetrable world of office politics wasn’t necessarily complex or arcane. Until this encounter I had believed, as many people do, that office politics was both unseemly and governed by an intricate set of rules that were simply not worth learning. I had believed that mastering office politics, while a precursor to climbing up the corporate food chain, was not something I could do or would even want to do — like being told I could live on the International Space Station, but only if I mastered the rules of physics and zero-g engineering that would enable me to clean the septic system there barehanded every day. Even reaching the stars is not enough to compensate for wading in that kind of crap all the time.

I’ve learned that taking that stance is unnecessary, and can keep you from advancing in your career. Yes, office politics is occasionally messy and gross, but most of the time it is not hard to understand the mechanics. They are based on human relationships, which most of us are fluent in. If you have the information you need, it’s usually not hard to figure out what to do. Of course, getting the information is the hard part.

For thousands of years, alchemists believed that the physical world was governed by wildly abstruse and variant rules, but once a few scientists had stumbled upon some basic facts that could serve as an anchor, it only took a hundred years or so for them to come up with the whole Periodic Table. It’s the same with office politics. Once my boss had given me that one tidbit of reliable knowledge, I realized I could figure much of the rest out. So don’t dismiss the need to attend to office politics as something beyond your skill. Listen to people you trust and you are bound to pick up some of the most elemental information you need — then, just apply what you learn sensibly.

If you’ve learned something — or are still hoping to learn something — about office politics, feel free to share your story with us.