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Office Politics: Situational Awareness vs. Playing

Love it (or, more likely, hate it) office politics is a fact of life. It’s there and it’s never going away, even though it’s almost universally accepted as being a bad thing. We tell teach other “don’t play the game—you’ll get burned!” and that’s probably sound advice. But there’s a difference between playing politics, and being aware of politics.

Everyone knows what playing politics is about. It’s actively trying to move one’s own agenda forward at all costs, not necessarily in the best interest of the company. It’s a risky business, and often entails taking sides, undermining people, and ultimately, making enemies. What happens with this game is that if you don’t play well—if you align yourself with the wrong person, for example—you can join the ranks of the jobless very quickly… and unexpectedly.

Being mindful of office politics is an entirely different thing. It’s about situational awareness: keeping your ear to the ground in order to have a solid understanding of what’s going on in your company. With this strategy, you’re not one of the players. Instead, you’re an observer—but a smart observer. Did you hear that Mr. White hates Mr. Green? Well, make sure you don’t get caught in the crossfire. Did someone mention that Mr. Brown’s projects have a way of creeping into Mr. Grey’s department and causing friction? Don’t volunteer for those projects. Can you sense that Mr. Black hates your boss? It might be a good idea to try and appear as impartial as you can to all projects company-wide, so that you don’t get “fired by association” if your boss gets the boot.

There’s a third option here. Not playing politics—and not being aware of them either. This is possibly the most dangerous game of all. When you’re not conscious of what’s going on beneath what is openly obvious, you risk drifting into a danger zone and not even realizing it. Suddenly, the organizational structure changes, and since you were a “Mr. Green guy”—possibly without even really knowing it—you’re out.

Situational awareness in office politics is based on one idea: know what’s going on around you and wisely adjust your behaviour accordingly. Think of it this way: your career is a journey. On any journey there are obstacles to overcome. Anticipating those obstacles so that they don’t stop you in your tracks in the best way for you to get to where you want to go.

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