November 30 2007: 4:29 PM EST
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Play office politics without getting dirty

You can gain power at work without putting your integrity through the shredder. Fortune's Anne Fisher explains how.

By Anne Fisher, Fortune senior writer

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(Fortune) -- Look up "politics" at websters.com and you'll find a secondary entry, "play politics," defined thus: "to deal with people in an opportunistic, manipulative, or devious way, as for job advancement." I'd guess that's the way most of us think of office politics.

But Mitchell Kusy, Ph.D., a Fulbright scholar for international organizational development who teaches in the doctoral program at Antich University, has a different idea. Co-author of a new book called Manager's Desktop Consultant: Just-in-Time Solutions to the Top People Problems That Keep You Up at Night (Davies-Black, $18.95), Kusy sees politics as "the art of building relationships that will help you and your team accomplish more than you could on your own."

"Playing politics the right way can have a tremendous impact on your career," he says. "It's a matter of learning good gamesmanship."

I talked recently with Kusy about how to play politics at work in a positive way. Some excerpts from our conversation:

Q. In your consulting work, do you often find that "politics" has gotten a bad name?

A. Oh, definitely. But you can't escape it. Every organization is political. You can't just say, "I won't get involved in office politics," because that simply won't work, especially if you hope to get to a position of power or influence. So what we try to do is, teach people how to engage with the political structure of the company in a positive way.

Q. How does one do that?

A. The first step is to figure out how success is measured in your organization. This might sound obvious, but when we poll people in companies, we find that they often don't know exactly what makes someone successful - or not - whether it's generating revenues, or delivering excellent customer service, or any number of things. But once you have analyzed what is really valued by the organization, you can start to align what you're doing with that.

Then, take a good look at the prevailing management style. How does your style fit in? If the power brokers in the company all have a very autocratic style, and yours is more consensus-driven, or vice versa, try to adapt your style. But do it in small steps. Trying to suddenly act in a way that is totally out of character for you is likely to backfire.

Q. Besides how success is measured, what else do you find many people don't know about their company's power structure?

A. How much risk is tolerated, and what happens if you try something new and fail. This is crucial, yet many people don't take it into account ahead of time. Let's say you work for an entrepreneurial organization where people are expected to make decisions quickly and rely a great deal on their intuition. If you're a very analytical person who has to dot every "i" and cross every "t" before you can reach a decision, you'll probably miss the boat. And the reverse is true as well. If you want to achieve influence in the organization, you have to be operating on the same wavelength as the people who have power.

You also need to know what the consequences will be if you take a risk and it doesn't work out. Will you get a slap on the wrist, or be ostracized for a while and then forgiven, or will you be fired? If it's the latter, you might decide to take a calculated risk anyway, but you won't be blindsided by the result.

Q. What's the most common mistake people make in trying to increase their own influence?

A. One very common mistake is, aligning themselves too closely with any one group or faction - which has the effect of needlessly alienating other factions. Try to find a variety of benefits in a wide range of alliances. One sure way to build your influence is to learn how to work with your opponents and find areas of mutual interest and agreement. In my consulting practice, I've seen people really try to understand an "enemy's" position, and end up changing their own views as a result. That's very powerful. It shows that you're confident enough to be flexible.

Q. What if you do all these things - analyze what the organization defines as "success," adapt your style to the prevailing style, understand the risk tolerance, and so on - and you decide you're in the wrong place? Does that happen much?

A. Yes, and at that point I've seen people leave one organization and go to another one where they have a better chance of achieving real influence without having to change their entire personality. As a psychologist I can tell you, everyone can adapt to some extent, but people's essential personalities do not change.

So if you find yourself in a situation where you are struggling to connect to the power structure and build influence, but you just don't fit in well enough - especially if what is expected is an affront to your sense of integrity - maybe you don't belong there.

You have to be authentic. The cardinal rule of good politics is: If it isn't really you, don't do it.

Readers, what do you think? Can office politics ever be positive? Or have you only seen the negative effects? What are the best and worst examples of office politics you've seen? Post your thoughts on the Ask Annie blog.  To top of page