• Career Center

    How to Get Ahead: Embrace Office Politics

    By | November 1, 2017

    Ed. note: This post originally appeared on the Accountingfly blog.

    I think most people fall into one of two camps when it comes to office politics. There are those people who think it shouldn’t matter much when it comes to getting ahead. And then there are those people who think that it’s the only thing that matters when it comes to getting ahead.

    As usual, the truth is probably somewhere in between those two poles. Those who believe in the pure meritocracy are deluding themselves. And the group of people who think only the Machiavellis of the world get promoted will eventually trip up on one thing or another.  

    Early in my career, I thought my smarts, hard work, and collaboration would propel me forward in my public accounting career. I wanted to rise above political BS and get ahead based on merits. It’s not that I didn’t socialize or try to build relationships with people, it just wasn’t a big priority to me. My work would speak for itself, and I’d get recognized for it.

    I’m thinking about all this because I read this Harvard Business Review article on the topic. This is a good passage:

    “Everyone can see how hard I’m working,” we tell ourselves, or “Everyone knows how good my work is. All you have to do is look at the results.” Believing in a just world feels good. […] “I didn’t want to play office politics or be perceived as a brown-noser, self-promoter, or someone who rose because she was buddies with so-and-so. I was always told that the cream would naturally rise to the top.”

    A few years after I left accounting, I had a Big 4 executive tell me that politics didn’t matter, that the best people always find their way to the top. I reacted incredulously, and even today I don’t think that’s altogether true, but I do believe that how people build relationships and communicate has a lot to do with getting ahead. I wish I would’ve learned that sooner.

    My attitude — that politics didn’t matter and those who played the game were slimy, disingenuous phony baloneys — was probably one of the biggest mistakes I made in my public accounting career. I thought politics meant brown-nosing and playing games to earn undeserved recognition and favor, but really it’s about communicating with the right people in the right way. It means communicating effectively with people that you might not like or who you find repulsive. It means learning how to manage up. It means getting way outside of your comfort zone sometimes. These are all hard things to learn! And that’s probably why so many people dismiss “politics” — it doesn’t feel like it should matter but in reality, it matters a lot. Better get used to it.

    • Debit_Big4_Experience

      This is a good perspective for me to hear early in my public career. Congrats on the baby, Caleb!

    • Big4Veteran

      This is a good discussion topic. I’m almost 20 years into my career and its still something I’m trying to figure out. I’ve seen people who just keep their head down and work hard, but they eventually hit a ceiling at the company because they aren’t outgoing and involved in the internal politics. I’ve also seen people who are completely full of shit but play the political game incessantly. They seem to do well in the short to medium term, but it always seems to eventually catch up to them and someone squashes them.

      Part of it depends on the company. Some are more political than others. But I think a lot of it depends on HOW you play the politics. Not playing politics at all doesn’t seem to be a good strategy for long-term advancement. If you try to be positive, a good team player, and not throw other people under the bus, but stay aware of others who have their knives out for you and you defend yourself accordingly, this seems to be the best formula in most situations.

      • boatz_n_hoez

        office politics is fucking non sense. I just started my career, all I do is come to work
        and do what’s asked of me, nothing more nothing less. Sure, once in a while I’ll go to a happy hour, but I rarely involve myself in extracurricular work bullshit. It’s hard to believe that one must succumb to office politics to advance in the organization. It sucks being an ant.

        • N.E.R.D.

          Once you get some real responsibility (and get paid for those responsibilities), politics begins to matter more and more.

          A new staff has no real responsibilities, that’s why you find it hard to believe that one must engage in office politics to advance. Sometimes it’s not for advancement, but rather to maintain your position if someone is trying to take you down or it’s to remove a toxic individual from the group/office.

        • keepin_it_real

          “… all I do is come to work and do what’s asked of me, nothing more nothing less…”
          That only works if you plan on staying at your current position. If you ever want to move up you better be doing more than what’s asked of you.

      • SmallFry

        That’s sound advice. Ever find a situation in your 20 years where you needed to take the offensive approach in the politics?

        • Big4Veteran

          Yes, it happens all the time. I try not to “take the offensive approach” though. I play defense by (1) covering my ass so that I don’t give others easy opportunities to stab me in the back or throw me under the bus and (2) striking back where and when appropriate. The key is to make sure you have the facts on your side, and to not get too emotional. And then to pick and choose the time of your counter-attack. You want to expose the other person’s bullshit while maintaining your own appearance of professionalism.

          It’s usually pretty easy to spot the people who are full of shit. Once you identify them, just keep an eye on them because they will try to get you blamed for their own failures (survival instinct). Fortunately, these people are usually so lazy and incompetent and in over their heads that they blow themselves up without you ever having to do anything.

          • N.E.R.D.

            “The key is to make sure you have the facts on your side, and to not get too emotional. And then to pick and choose the time of your counter-attack. You want to expose the other person’s bullshit while maintaining your own appearance of professionalism.”

            Hey this is what I do! For having such differing opinions on stuff, we operate pretty similarly in the professional world.

            You just let the bullshitter dig their own grave and don’t let them drag you down with them. Facts and demonstrating patterns with those facts are the key to shutting down bullshit.

    • Juan Deck

      Very good discussion topic, especially in public accounting. From my experience, doing good work, collaborating with others, and putting in effort have provided a high floor for my success. However, it was only when I became aware of office politics that I began to do well at the firm and became someone the firm wanted to keep. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to play the dirty game of politics – you just have to recognize that it exists. Be ready to cover your ass and stand your ground when shit hits the fan and the bus-throwers come along.
      The article is right that people who “play the game” but don’t have the work ethic to match often perform well in the short term, because these (selfish) people recognize that spending all of your time managing up while simultaneously making your subordinates’ lives as miserable as possible is the best way to look good while putting in minimal effort. However, in my experience these people always get caught one way or another. In industries outside of public accounting (sales etc), that may be a different story.

      • N.E.R.D.

        “you just have to recognize that it exists. Be ready to cover your ass and stand your ground when shit hits the fan and the bus-throwers come along.”

        This is exactly it. It’s the people who don’t acknowledge or remain ignorant of the office culture and political structure that will get fired without ever seeing it coming.

    • SmallFry

      Everyone here is sharing the notion how “things will catch up” to the game players. I’ve yet to see that come true. That “catch up” only occurs 1 out of 5 game gurus. It’s downright demoralizing at times.

      • Big4Veteran

        I’ve seen it happen on many occasions. In fact, when someone is full of shit it almost always catches up with them. Everyone has to deliver at some point. If they repeatedly can’t deliver, they will eventually get blown up.

        When I was in public accounting, I had more than one douchebag senior manager who routinely abused the staff and firm policies, and threw people under the bus to cover for their own laziness and/or incompetence. In each case, it caught up to them. They never made partner. In two cases, I participated in blowing them up. I’ve had it happen many times in private industry as well, both with my supervisors and people under me. Also, people in other departments like the VP of HR. They always get what’s coming to them sooner or later. Always.

      • Big4Veteran

        Note: Sometimes you don’t see when someone has blown themself up. In the senior manager comments I made on my previous comment, the staff on my job probably had no idea what happened. But in both cases, neither senior manager ever made partner. And one of them ended up “voluntarily” leaving the firm a few months after the end of the audit.

        • OldRetiredAccountant

          I think the key word here is EVENTUALLY. People who can’t perform will always eventually get found out. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to suffer through it until “eventually” happens.

          • Big4Veteran

            Life is not fair.

            • SmallFry

              there it is. the ultimate truth. indeed it’s not fair. i take the same approach you and @@disqus_2bq8hhYdaH:disqus talked about, but there are times I’ve been seen as abrasive when I cover my ass and when I document the information others give. It’s frowned upon when i document the game player(s) who are held at a different standard- they are made of teflon and can’t be touched no matter how bad they screw up. “Life is not fair” sums it all up. I pray to see the “eventuality” or at least hear of it when the game players gets karma dished to them.

    • Adam Hill

      Have a good sense of humor and try to make people laugh. It has got me out of a lot of screw ups over my years, both public and private. Leave the politics to the dirty shit bag politicians.

      • boatz_n_hoez

        Terrible advice

        • Adam Hill

          I’ve got your apartment in either Southern California or somewhere like Portland. What I am really trying to figure out is which college had the privilege. And which frat did you paddle for?

    • stephscv1234

      “Playing politics” is super important imo. I’m barely average at my job in the technical sense, but I have a good personality and I have a good work ethic, good team player etc etc. This has allowed me to work at god companies with a good pay range.

    • guest

      I sucked at office politics early in my career, and made a few missteps, such as telling a senior manager that an idea was stupid… only to find out that it was their pet idea. (Many years later, I can say that it was always an incredibly stupid idea, but my delivery on that could have been more politic.)

      I’m a little better now, though I’m certainly not in the advanced class. I’ve certainly learned to be more diplomatic, and if I criticize someone, I can do it in a non-blaming way. I’ve gotten better at reading when someone is being untruthful. I’d probably be a level higher if I’d learned some of this sooner.

      Sometimes, it’s just knowing to pick your battles. If I disagree
      with someone on a technical position, but I know that there is room for
      interpretation, I can let it go if it’s their signature going on it in
      the end. If it’s my signature, I’ll hold my ground. My technical and people skills with clients and direct reports keeps too much blame from being lobbed at me (so far), or it doesn’t stick.

      However, managing upwards is an art, and I’m at the fingerpainting level at that. I’ve learned to be honest enough in job interviews to try to avoid bosses I won’t mesh with. I’ll just flat out say that I don’t do well with being micromanaged. I once met someone and the look on their face clearly said that they’d been accused of being a micromanager, so I ended up declining to pursue it any further.

      I haven’t learned to stab someone in the back while smiling to their face. Nor have I learned to take down my enemies so that I get awarded their bonus, take their promotion, bathe in their blood, and hear the lamentations of their (wo)men. I hope I don’t have to, but retirement is decades away, so I might. I at least try to spot the Littlefingers of corporate America who can do this, and I try to avoid getting in their crosshairs.