Office Theater

Employment Matters column,

There’s a particular form of drama that plays out in the workplace, and it has a name. Most people call it office politics, but it doesn’t only happen in the office – it happens at construction sites, restaurants, police stations, farms – anywhere you find groups of people working together.

Some workers just want to do their job to the best of their ability and go home to their family and friends. Others are more ambitious and look ahead for career advancement opportunities. And still others simply delight in attracting attention with maddening behavior.

You will encounter a variety of personality types wherever you work, and not all workplaces are one big happy family. In any place where there’s a system, there’s often someone trying to game the system to their advantage. If you do not pay attention, the whoosh of wind you feel will be someone blowing past you for a promotion.

Let’s take a look at some standard characters on the office politics stage. You may recognize some from your own experience.

The Earnest, Sympathetic, and Weak Boss

Nothing generates drama like a vacuum of leadership. Earnest Boss wants to be friends with everyone, and too often lets standards slide in his desire to keep everyone happy. This doesn’t work well – people sometimes need a kick in the pants to get the job done, and the boss needs to be ready and able to do the kicking when necessary. It’s a shame, because everyone likes Earnest Boss, but on the whole they don’t respect him. If Earnest Boss is at your workplace, watch out – you’ll get along with the boss just fine, but it’s his assistants you need to keep an eye on. One of them may eventually replace him.

The Scheming Careerist

This busy worker bee has fingers in everyone’s pie, and likes to claim they know your job better than you do. And guess what? Sometimes they do – they’ve been around a long time, they’ve worked countless hours currying favor with management, they know everyone’s strengths and weaknesses – and how to exploit them to their advantage. But somehow they never seem to move up into management, because their intensity is scary even to management.

The Nattering Nabob of Negativity

This is the jaded, cynical know-it-all who has been there, done that, brought home the t-shirt, and pronounced it a waste of time. You may find the Nabob warm, funny, engaging, and even a useful source of info at times. But the constant negative attitude becomes annoying after awhile, and eventually you realize the Nabob has a big collection of complaints, but an empty plate when asked for solutions. Steer clear – that negative outlook is poisonous, both to your mental health and your job.

The Center of Calm

Every workplace has one – the junior staffer who is a wizard problem-solver, the one who knows where to find the form or tool you need, who knows who can help you work through a problem, who knows the difference between company policy and practical solutions. This person is a hub – the central resource that everyone turns to when they feel stuck or have questions or need something. He or she actually has more influence than the boss…but shhhh! – the boss doesn’t know it!

The Wallflower

This is the quiet worker who comes in, says hello, goes to work and stays focused all day. What makes this worker stand out is the *absence* of drama. Management loves Wallflowers – they don’t generate drama, they don’t make demands, they don’t create headaches. They simply show up, do their job well, and maintain good relationships with as many co-workers as possible. Management wants to clone this worker.

There are many variations on these themes – you may get the arrogant, firebreathing Boss from Hell instead of Earnest Boss. You may have a Bubbly Airhead of Optimism instead of Nattering Nabob of Negativity. You may be surrounded by aggressive, in-your-face competitors rather than mild-mannered Wallflowers.

Regardless of who the players are in your workplace, office politics is the game, and you need to be prepared to play too if you don’t want to be crushed flat in the stampede for more pay, perks and benefits.

You may find the prospect of office politics distasteful – whatever happened to judging people solely by their merits? It does happen – here and there, from time to time – but don’t count on it. If you ain’t got game, you’ll be staring at the backs of the hustlers ahead of you.