Fly Under the Radar to Absorb Delicate Workplace Politics

Fly Under the Radar to Absorb Delicate Workplace Politics

If there's one thing that will truly shock you in your first job after graduation, it's office politics, stemming from the often unbelievable events that occur when people with widely varying backgrounds, agendas and personalities get together in an organization and try to get something done.

I'll never forget the political lessons I learned in the initial days of my first job after graduating in 1991. I was a writer and editor at a publishing company. For starters, it didn't take a relationship expert to see that two of my new coworkers clearly despised each other and would do almost anything to make each other angry or look bad. Both colleagues immediately tried to win me over to their side while I worked my hardest to remain neutral.

In the meantime, my supervisor took me aside on my first day and gave me a sort of mini-orientation to the politics of this particular workplace. He told me what the world of work was really like, what and whom to watch out for and why, and how to maneuver through the various landmines I'd likely come across in the weeks and months ahead.

Politics will affect you in your work from day one, no matter what type of job you have or what industry you're in. So it's important to not only be aware of politics, but to know what to do about political situations in your workplace.

More Real-World Examples

There's a good reason Dilbert is so wildly popular in workplaces around the world. Many of the situations it portrays are, unfortunately, real in many organizations. Need evidence? Here are some circumstances people have written about on the Ask the Workplace Doctors Web site:

  • A small work group's coworker has such poor hygiene that the other workers in the group think the person has bugs. They don't know how to handle the situation delicately so they can maintain a -- mostly -- positive work environment.
  • A company recently hired a new employee who is absolutely wonderful -- too wonderful, in fact. He's outshining his supervisor to such a degree that the supervisor is now treating the employee badly and trying to undermine everything he does. 
  • A quality and safety manager at a small company wants to do something about one of his employees, who sometimes comes to work drunk. But that employee is a cousin of the company's top salesman, and if he were fired, that high-performing salesman might quit.

How Do You Handle Workplace Politics?

You might be tempted to simply ignore the politics in your organization. Bad idea, says author Stephen Viscusi, who devotes an entire chapter of his new book, On the Job: How to Make it in the Real World of Work, to the nuances of workplace politics.

"It's naïve to try to stay out of it all," says Viscusi, an executive recruiter and host of "On the Job," a nationally syndicated radio program on career issues. "Instead, you should be political and stay in touch. You don't have to build a political reputation, but it's important to be in tune with what's going on around you. Maybe you don't like to gossip, but you don't want to be out of the loop either.

Will you soon be starting your first job after graduation, or even an internship or a co-op assignment? If so, Viscusi advises, invest some time and energy to absorbing the politics of your organization without getting enmeshed in it all.

"Fly under the radar screen for the first three to six months," he says. "Learn the politics of the company. Learn who the players are and get to know the dynamics of the organization, but without trying to get too involved."

The more you observe in the organization, especially in your early days, Viscusi says, the more you'll realize that the workplace is driven by people and relationships. How you understand and deal with those people and relationships, and the myriad issues that emerge when they collide, will almost certainly influence whether your work experience is good or bad.