While more than half blamed their stress on unrealistic deadlines or workload, as well as long working hours, just under half said a lack of support or training contributed to their ill health.
While more than half blamed their stress on unrealistic deadlines or workload, as well as long working hours, just under half said a lack of support or training contributed to their ill health.

How to thrive on office politics

By Gabrielle Fagan And Keeley Bolger Time of article published Apr 18, 2013

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Dublin - Work can be a wicked world. If you’re not crippled by the workload and pressure, there’s the office politics to contend with, whether its backstabbing or dirty tactics.

While some use them to great effect, many people have experienced, or seen the effect on others, of toxic scenarios – a boss unfairly favouring a charming employee, tears in the toilet as someone feels excluded from the office “inner circle”, or an employee ruthlessly taking credit for another’s efforts.

Clinical psychologist Oliver James says although there’s plenty to deplore about underhand games, it’s vital to learn how to use office politics to gain career success.

“Office politics has a bad name in that people tend to think that it’s people behaving in a devious way,” he says. “But, in reality, we all engage in office politics, it’s an inevitable part of professional life. Let’s stop regarding manipulation, which happens all the time in business, as a dirty word.”

Neither your ability nor your personality are as important as office politics in deciding whether you succeed in today’s workplace, he says. “Resources, whether that be pay, promotion or good jobs, are finite and we all have to be political, to some degree, in order to get them.

“Not only do you need to be skilled at office politics to thrive, you need it to spot whether people are stitching you up and use it to avoid trouble.”

There’s even more need to learn to be skilful at office “games” because our hard recessionary times are making them more prevalent, says James, author of Office Politics: How To thrive In A World Of Lying, Backstabbing And Dirty Tricks.

Workers are seeing the value of their pay packets eroding. Coupled with a dwindling bonus pot, this can mean that unscrupulous workmates will do anything they can to get ahead.

The necessity to try to “win friends and influence people” at work is further heightened because most workers are in service industries, not manufacturing.

“There was a time when you either did or did not sew 100 dolls a day, for instance, or make 50 widgets, for which you were paid an agreed rate,” he says.

“But in service industries generally, your work cannot be evaluated in that way, which means nearly all your advancement depends on a subjective judgement made by your boss.

“If they like you or respect you, you prosper, and at its simplest, all I mean by office politics are the usual wheezes everyone uses to advance.”

He identifies four elements of political skill which, if they’re honed, will allow you navigate your way through to workplace success.

* Astuteness – being able to read others, your organisation and yourself.

* Effectiveness – knowing which tactics to use on whom and when.

* Networking – nurturing relationships within and beyond your organisation.

* The appearance of sincerity – “the closer the fit between who you really are and who you come across as, the better,” says James.

Just as key is recognising the traits in colleagues and learning how to deal with them.

James gives a guide to cunning colleagues and explains how to deal with them and win at office games.



Though even the best of us manipulate, there are some characters who do it in a nastier fashion.

James outlines three types of toxic individuals who are rife in the workplace and likely to be high up in the office hierarchy: the Machiavellian, the narcissist and the psychopath.

He points at evidence that suggests that if someone has one of these personality types, they’re likely to take on the characteristics of the other two, these he calls “triadic” people. In all cases, it’s wise to keep your wits about you.

“These people are lying to you all the time and telling things to your peers and bosses that you simply can’t imagine people would do.


“A lot of it is just destructive and… pointless. Never underestimate these people. They’re desperate and if they have nothing better to do, they’ll make up a pack of lies about you.”



They may not be Norman Bates but if you’re blighted by a colleague who is frostier than Antarctica, you could have a low-level psychopath in your midst.

“The psychopath is impulsive, callous and lacks fellow feelings,” says James.

“They’re somebody who will come into the office and find out that somebody’s parent has died. Other people will feel empathy – not the psychopath, they’ll be calculated and think, ‘Hmm, I wonder how this can benefit me?’.

“They see it as an opportunity to manipulate or get closer for their own ends.”

The best thing you can do is distance yourself, he says.

“Put as much organisational space between you and the psychopath as possible and try to get the hell out of there because these are not people you can do business with,” says James.

“You can try to make yourself indispensable to them but the problem with that is that they will be dumping their emotional rubbish on to you all day long.

“Keep smiling but in your mind picture this emotional garbage they’re giving to you, wrap it up, put it in tissue and go ahead and chuck it into the bin. Don’t take on what they’re projecting to you but do pretend to take it on.”



If you thought games were confined to the playground, think again, says James. The office Machiavel will treat furthering themselves as a sport.

“The Machiavel is a compulsive game player. Machiavellians fall into healthy and unhealthy ones. The likes of Gandhi and Mandela were Machiavels but they didn’t work out of self-interest.

“The type of Machiavel I’m talking about is a triadic Machiavel, the type that is toxic. They are often very compulsive and only feel comfortable if there is some kind of game going on where they can play and try to win.”

James suggests analysing the person’s motives.

“Try really hard to get your head around the fact that this person could be telling lies to you all the time and saying the most extraordinary things about you behind your back,” he says.

“Really allow yourself to think those thoughts and then you can make some kind of sense of what this person is up to.”



Ever find your ear being chewed off by a colleague harping on about themselves? Well, it looks like you’re lumbered with a narcissist.

“The narcissist is very easy to recognise because they’re so grandiose. They’re people who are trying to compensate for feelings of worthlessness and powerlessness through bigging themselves up,” says James.

“The most successful ones manage to conceal it and convert it into charm. Often you can feel a glamour about them which can kid you into making you think they include you as one of themselves.”

Be prepared to sweet talk your conceited colleague but do it indirectly. “Narcissists are the easiest to cope with because they respond so easily to flattery. But it has to be done cleverly with ingratiating tactics. Get somebody else to report that you’ve said something favourable about them.” – Irish Independent

l Office Politics: How To thrive In A World Of Lying, Backstabbing And Dirty Tricks by Oliver James is published by Vermillion.

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