Office Politics: 5 Ways to Survive the Shark-Infested Waters

By Greg Wallace

Whether you’re just starting your career or have been swimming in the deep waters of office politics for many years, you’re bound to run into some dangerous “fish.”

During my 25-year corporate career I held roles on the front line, in middle management and at the executive level, including a role reporting directly to the company president.

My friends would often ask me if my work environment was political. “It’s like swimming with the sharks.” I would say.

I thought I had come up with a unique — and clever — analogy. I was wrong.

Articles about office politics abound. No wonder in a survey conducted by Robert Half International, 62 percent of the workers interviewed said navigating office politics was at least somewhat necessary to get ahead. So it’s no wonder that a large number of those articles use the swimming with sharks analogy.

In a blog post entitled “Shark Week at Work! Are You Swimming With an Office Shark?” Robert Half, which is one of the world’s largest staffing firms, advises workers to “keep on top of which kinds of sharks are native to your waters so you know what to expect — and how to react.”

So here are the five kinds of shark I encountered during my career and how I survived swimming with them:

  • The Hammerhead Shark: People who choose less-talented friends over more talented strangers (i.e., you). I am a big believer in mentoring — mentoring others and being mentored. Among the people I established mentoring relationships with were people who were higher up the food chain.

Those people also served as sponsors. In one instance, an executive wanted to unilaterally hire a candidate. One of my sponsors asked for a competitive process; no guarantees, just a fair shot.

As it turned out, I was selected and the person who expected to get the job ended up working for me. But not for very long: the executive granted her request for a transfer.

  • The Bull Shark: People who pass on misinformation or rumors about you. In my experience, it was never worth my time to address every rumor or bit of misinformation about me. It was more important for me to build my credibility in individual encounters over time. Thus, some rumors would temporarily take hold. But the reputation I built usually spoke more loudly. “That does not even sound like, Greg” people would say in response to negative rumors.

A case example: I once had to ask for the resignation of a popular employee. Friends of the employee spread the rumor that I terminated him unfairly. Eventually, as people who knew me spoke up, that rumor faded.

  • The Basking Shark: People who make you look bad so they can look good. The key here is to take the high road. Focus on highlighting your own work. The best response you have to attacks on your work is to produce good work.

Once, after I had completed a temporary assignment, I was told by the regular manager that I had “failed in the field” because an ethics investigation was launched during my assignment (related to conduct that preceded my arrival). However, my response to the misconduct was praised. I never directly addressed the comment. My actions spoke louder than her words.

  • The Great White: People who highlight your mistakes to higher-ups. When you mess up, fess up. I learned to choose accountability. That is, I didn’t wait until my mistake came to light to reveal it. I always wanted my boss to hear bad things about me from me first. In doing so, I defanged this particular species of shark. As an internal client once said, “Bad news does not get better because it’s older.”
  • The Sand Shark: People who ask you to support them at the cost of doing what was right. This is a particularly dangerous species of shark, especially if they outrank you. Fortunately, I faced this particular shark only a few times. In each instance, I did what I thought was right and provided a legitimate business explanation about why I chose to carry out an order in a way that was different than directed.

Once I was asked to pay a consultant who was hired to perform ongoing work from a special project budget so that our operating budget would not take the hit. I did find some minimal work on the project and charged just that work to the project budget. I told my boss, that upon closer examination of the invoice, I found that most of the work was part of normal operations and so I charged the work accordingly.

I placed the ball back in the shark’s court (talk about your mixed metaphors!). And the shark acquiesced to how I handled the situation.

In my experience, the primary survival tips in the office shark tank are to do the right things the right way and let your actions, your reputation and your relationships represent you.

So long as we resist the temptation to become one, we can successfully swim with the sharks.


AUTHOR:  Greg Wallace is CEO of leadership consulting firm The Wallace Group. He is also the author of the book “Transformation: the Power of Leading from Identity.”


Reprinted from Workforce magazine



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