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Office politics: Should you play the game to get ahead?

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in Your Office Coach

Question: I can’t seem to get promoted, even though I am well-qualified. My performance evaluations are excellent, and I have received numerous awards. The company posts promotional opportunities so that anyone can apply, but the “winning” applicant always seems to have been selected in advance. Obviously, politics plays a great part in these selections, and I am not a political person. I do interact with people, but I just don’t do it with an agenda in mind. How can I get ahead? —  No Way Out

Marie’s Answer: If you have been passively waiting for management to notice your potential, then that strategy obviously isn’t working. To increase your odds of moving up, consider these suggestions:

•    Job posting can ensure that vacancies are advertised, but familiar candidates often have an advantage. It’s simple: The more we know about someone, the more comfortable we feel predicting his or her behavior. If the people making promotional decisions are aware of your abilities, you are more likely to be selected. 

•    Start thinking strategically about your career instead of just watching the job boards. What positions interest you? Do you know the key managers? Are they aware of your accomplishments? Have you discussed your career goals with them? 

•    You say you don’t interact “with an agenda in mind,” but that’s exactly what you must do to increase your promotional chances. Seek out opportunities to demonstrate your leadership potential. Use key managers as advisors and mentors. Find appropriate occasions to ask intelligent questions or share interesting information.

If you are quiet and reserved by nature, raising your profile may feel uncomfortable. But people, who quietly wait to be discovered, often wait a long, long time. 

To evaluate your own networking abilities, see How Good Is Your Network at Work?

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Revelation June 20, 2009 at 2:41 pm

According to the Observer Magazine, reported via the BBC, Marks & Spencer chairman Sir Stuart Rose says that women “have never had it so good”.
“Girls today have never had it so good, right? Apart from the fact that you’ve got more equality than you ever can deal with, the fact of the matter is that you’ve got real democracy and there really are no glass ceilings, despite the fact that some of you moan about it all the time.”

A female engineer on one of our coaching programs at a major engineering company was telling us about her career options. Over the course of her career, she has been very lucky to have been offered many exciting opportunities which she mostly accepts. She works hard, loves working with people, has excellent management skills and likes a challenge. Doesn’t she sound perfect?

As a child, she grew up in a mining village, her father the mine engineer. This would have been a highly prestigious job, responsible for maintaining the machinery of the mine, keeping coal flowing and miners safe. Not a manager, not a miner.

She used to sit under the kitchen table and listen to the conversations of her father and all her ‘uncles’ who would talk about big machines and coal. But she wasn’t attention seeking, she just needs recognition.

In her job as an engineer, she has been seconded to a project where she has to organise meetings with senior managers. She says that she feels uncomfortable telling senior managers what to do, and that she would feel ever so much more comfortable doing it if they promoted her. Once in the meeting, she becomes timid and says that she feels really nervous and uncomfortable telling those senior managers what to do. They say that she doesn’t look nervous. She says she does. They say she doesn’t. Yes I do, no you don’t. Ooh, you are awful, but I like you. And then she can tell them what to do. But of course, if they promoted her, she would feel ever so much more comfortable doing the things she does anyway.

One more thing… she has a PhD. She refers to herself as Dr Jane Doe (obviously not her real name) and she has resisted completing the professional qualifications preferred for her job because, to her, they are insignificant compared to her PhD. Her peers and managers don’t understand how hard she had to work for her PhD, they only understand the professional engineering qualification. She took a long time to achieve her PhD, because her lecturer just didn’t support her, he was rubbish. But then he retired and her new lecturer was wonderful, and he gave her lots of support, and he got her through in 9 months.

When she came out of the interview where the panel awarded her the PhD, the first thing she did was call her bank and have ‘Dr’ put on her chequebook.

This is a very interesting situation, because it turns out that she has excelled at maneuvering herself into positions where the right person offers her the right opportunity out of the blue, and what a lovely surprise, and how lucky she was. And of course, the right person was always a man.

She exhibits the same attention seeking behaviour now as she did under the kitchen table, and we even managed to get a little sulk out of her at one point in the meeting.

There is a slightly sad aspect to this. Essentially her control strategy is to get into a position where the person that she wants something from offers it to her as if it was their idea. She graciously accepts, except when she doesn’t. This is a control strategy because if she just asked them for it, they could say no, putting them in control. If they ask her, she can say hmmm… let me think… weeeeellllll go on then. You’ve talked me into it. I’m doing you a favour, though. She is in control.

When we suggested that she tells her manager that she wants the promotion, she said that she couldn’t say that, she couldn’t be so direct.

The danger for her, and others who use this strategy, is that asking for what she wants puts her in far more control than all the waiting and hoping. While she is waiting for the right person to recognise and reward her, the business is evolving and changing. Fast. The business is moving so quickly that her strategy doesn’t work any more, because it needs plenty of time for her to set up the control relationship with the person who has what she wants. The managers might well think she’s very good at her job, but they don’t know what she wants, so they have to focus on the people who are driving the business, not the ones sitting on the bench, hoping to be noticed.

In fact, they just hired someone who will likely develop into a manager to encompass the area that she wants to move into, so now she has to start over, looking for a different route to the top. The clock is ticking faster and faster, and by the time she realises that she is more likely to get what she wants if she asks for it, it will be too late.

I hope that Sir Stuart Rose knows enough about these things to realise what he’s saying. Some women will get to the top, on their own merits. Some people – men and women – will never get to the top because they need someone else to be there first, pulling them along. They don’t want to be at the top. From the point of view of a manipulator, if you’re at the top, who is left to manipulate anyway?

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Kathy June 10, 2009 at 2:03 pm

I disagree with the last paragraph of the article. I am quiet and reserved by nature and two of my past promotions were due to being approached by my superiors who encouraged me to apply. As I am now in the position to notice others I say that the employee who points out every accomplishment (real or imagined) isn’t necessarily the best person to promote – the quiet achiever brings a perspective to the table that ongoing strategist overlooks.

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Carol June 10, 2009 at 1:47 pm

Good advice. One more thing…make sure your own supervisor knows of your desire to advance. Ask him/her what you should do to improve your chances. And ask your supervisor to be your champion when these opportunities present themselves.

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