114

The question pretty much speaks for itself. I am a hard worker, very productive, and usually the one everyone turns to when they have a problem.

However, I work in a privately owned company, and several times have been told by my supervisor "don't agree to help (person) without my approval, that request is just a power play" after (person) has asked me to implement something to help their productivity and I agreed to because I could see the benefit in it.

I'm capable of playing the office politics game, I just detest it and feel it is a waste of energy. I also want to keep myself as accessible as possible to everyone in the company without anyone having to wonder if what they say to or around me will come back to bite them. I also have little patience for subterfuge and doublespeak.

Is there a professional way to cut through the red tape and office politics without stepping on too many toes?

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    Who usually decides what you work on? Your manager, a (separate) project manager, you? If somebody other than the person who assigns your work asks you to do something, it's generally safe (in my experience) to tell that person to ask so-and-so. But I wouldn't normally think of that as politics. Is there something more complicated going on here? – Monica Cellio Aug 17 '15 at 18:21
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    To clarify, I am not making the assumption that office politics gets you ahead. The question clearly states I do NOT want to participate in office politics, AND I want to head off any conflicts that might arise from my refusal to join in. Please don't assume my assumptions. – Bardicer Aug 17 '15 at 21:00
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    I don't see anything wrong with this question, even though some people seem to want to twist it to be based on whatever...false assumptions? First, office politics would not even exist in a workplace unless those who play it assumed that it helps them to be "successful" (however they now define their "success"). – user100487 Aug 17 '15 at 21:53
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    Second, to me this question is not so much about whether Nick should redirect some requests elsewhere, but rather about a more generic case of how to help solve legitimate business needs when one has been given right to choose what to work on BUT ones manager views certain requests as "power play". Although admittedly the manager may have had underlying (legitimate) reasons for calling it "power play". – user100487 Aug 17 '15 at 21:54
136

I think that in this situation, honest communication will do wonders for you. Typing up this question shows that you've thought through the problem in enough detail to express it to both your coworker and your supervisor.

  1. Tell coworkers that you have to get approval. You can say, "This looks like a great project, I'd like to devote some time to work on it; let me run it by [supervisor] first." If they ask why, tell them it's what your supervisor wants. Ignore what your supervisor said about "power play" because you don't care and it doesn't matter. Part of supervising employees may be managing their workload so it's not odd or unprofessional to comply with your supervisor's request.

  2. Tell your supervisor that you don't like red tape and office politics and you want to keep yourself and your skills accessible to any project that benefits the company, no matter who's running it. Try not to take a tone that suggests you're entitled to this, because you're not—this is your preference as an employee. Hopefully your supervisor will ease up a bit or at least explain to you the costs of your request and benefits of their time management policy.

Being subjected to micromanagement can be very onerous. By communicating the conditions under which you feel you work best, you associate your preferences with your productivity. This gives your supervisor an incentive to cooperate and a way to justify it with their superiors, if necessary.

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    That sounds perfectly reasonable to me and I can't see any negatives to it. – Bardicer Aug 17 '15 at 17:30
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    Huge emphasis on the "Part of supervising employees may be managing their workload" section. Regardless of whether you want to help, it is your manager's responsibility to decide whether you take time away from your core projects to assist your coworkers. This takes all office politics away from you, and lets you just get on with your job. It also lets you see it as a time management issue, not a politics issue. – Jon Story Aug 18 '15 at 15:28
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    I'm not sure #2 will be useful, at least not as phrased. Firstly, many might not consider getting (informal?) approval to work on something as either red tape or office politics. As you mentioned, it's perfectly reasonable to expect that you get approval to work on something first (so it could be non-negotiable). The supervisor has already brought this up a few times - if it were acceptable, why would he/she have brought it up in the first place? You instead might be able to go with the argument of it not interfering with your "regular" work (if this is true). – Dukeling Aug 18 '15 at 15:49
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    I'm with @Dukeling on whether the second part is useful. I think it would be more effective to go to the supervisor and explain the value the OP sees in the project. (In other words, make a business case for it. Show the supervisor it's not just a power play.) – jpmc26 Aug 19 '15 at 0:53
  • hat the supervisor is asking for is not micromanagement, it is management. It is not unreasonable to decide which projects outside of your own group a person can take on. – HLGEM Oct 10 '17 at 13:37
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You have an unrealistic view of office politics. You do need to play the game to some extent, you don't need to be duplicitous or use doublespeak. But making sure people know your achievements, making sure people want to cooperate with you are all good things and they are all office politics. You need to expand your view of office politics, no one can afford to ignore them.

If you aren't playing, people will find you easy to defeat. They will find it easy to give you less than you deserve. They will find it easy to get rid of you. You ignore politics at your own peril and many a person has found themselves fired because they thought the game was beneath them.

For instance in the case above, you might be making it harder to do something organizationally that you don't know about because you are helping out an organizational opponent. Perhaps your boss has more critical things he wants you to work on as well which is part of why he doesn't want you doing such things. And maybe the person is trying to get you assigned to him or to do something else to undermine your boss. You never help people who are trying to undermine your boss. Perhaps someone thinks you are not necessary because you have time for all this extra unapproved work. Your boss may be trying to protect you.

That said, you don't have to be nasty to refuse the work. Nor do you have to be a snake to play office politics.

All work above the first level of supervision is political. If you aren't helping your boss succeed, then you are harming him and he is the one who decides on your performance. Think about that.

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    What you describe is an unhealthy, inefficient, and honestly terrifying workplace, and an extremely pessimistic two-wrongs-make-a-right world-view, and I've never worked anywhere where this is the case. – AlbeyAmakiir Aug 17 '15 at 23:05
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    I'm not saying there's no politics - you can't have people without politics - but if people in your workplace are actively working to undermine each other, then it's bad for co-operation, will damage and weaken the business, and is terrible for the mental health of everyone to be around that all the time. It's not something you should just put up with. – AlbeyAmakiir Aug 18 '15 at 0:26
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    It tends to happen more in bigger companies. Entire departments are too busy fighting each other to actually get on with the job. One company I was working at nearly collapsed because some new senior management came in who were so busy playing each other against each other they never actually did their job. – Tim B Aug 18 '15 at 7:50
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    "You never help people who are trying to undermine your boss" seems to be a rather harsh army-like statement. I wouldn't generalize this that much. – dirkk Aug 18 '15 at 8:34
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    I don't think getting manager approval for things to work on involves you in office politics - doing this is just a very basic part of most jobs. But sure, the request itself may be filled with office politics (but being given that request has already pretty much put you in the middle of it, regardless of what you do with it) and the manager may take office politics into account when deciding what to make of these requests (but you don't have to get involved in that). – Dukeling Aug 18 '15 at 16:03
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The simple answer is: No. You cannot completely avoid office politics.

However, you can avoid a lot of the worst of it. Don't worry about what other people are doing, don't try and undermine them or bring them down. Just focus on your own image.

If you build up your own reputation to be good at your job, perform well, be reliable, etc then you are not a tempting target for people to use as a scapegoat. So long as you are then careful not to get pulled into things you can remain mostly free of the fray.

The problem with avoiding all politics though is that it doesn't take two to tango in this case. If someone decides to target you then you are now involved whether you like it or not.

The key to success is making your own position strong enough that you are not likely to be attacked, while at the same time not making any enemies of your own. Which is a form of office politics again.

By making sure that my contributions are visible, that I'm helpful and friendly, and that I don't ever pull other people down then in most places I've worked I've been able to remain completely free of the political side. That only hasn't worked in one company where everything was going to hell and everyone from upper management on down was desperately finding someone to blame but the culture there was so toxic that I didn't want to stay long and I moved on.

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I see no "office politics" here; I see only you going out of your chain of command and spending company time performing tasks that you are not paid to perform. You are there to do what your manager instructs, not what some other person asks.

You cannot be "successful" if you continue doing this. Your manager will eventually have to drop you.

  • I know it's been a while since this was posted. But... my manager was quite upset when I left the company for 10k a year more than he told me I was worth and a commute that is only 1/4 what my previous commute was. And I'm about to hire one of my former coworkers away from him. So apparently I'm doing something right. – Bardicer Nov 3 '16 at 21:15
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    @Bardicer: Perhaps I should have said "you cannot be successful at that company". You'll never be able to disprove that, since you left. – Lightness Races in Orbit Nov 4 '16 at 10:02
  • That would probably be a much more accurate observation. Your answer came across with a much more negative impression. – Bardicer Nov 4 '16 at 13:17
  • @Bardicer: The scope of the answer is pretty clear. – Lightness Races in Orbit Nov 4 '16 at 14:48
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This is a no brainer. What politics? Economics. Who pays your wages and who are you accountable to? If your supervisor is your immediate superior, it is his departments budget that is paying for your efforts to help someone else, who may be in a different department or work under a different budget. End of. If you've got time within your working day to do something for someone else, you could be being so much more productive for your own dept/group.

  • My department is a sub department of the other one. The owner of the company pays my wages, not my supervisor. Technically I was hired by my supervisor AND a vp who is over all of the departments. My job duties are to provide solutions to increase the productivity of the company by four times with the current employees (that's the target goal). As such it WAS a no brainer for me. There have been other mentions of other people making power grabs, this was just the example I used. – Bardicer Aug 19 '15 at 16:35
  • @Nick: Doesn't matter; you're still doing something on the instructions of someone who is not your supervisor, instead of what you were already doing on the instructions of your supervisor. And you can't do that. End of story. – Lightness Races in Orbit Aug 21 '15 at 10:53
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"Office politics" are avoidable. Actually the situation is not political so much as it is unprofessional and semi-bullying.

I have been a contract engineer for decades. Some contracts call for a year or two of onsite work; other contracts range from a day to a few months. The shorter contracts are quite easy to avoid feuds and power plays: Just don't participate.

In longer contracts, when it may seem to many that I am just another employee, it is usually sufficient to ask if they really want me—an hourly contractor—to do whatever it is.

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    The OP appears to be a permanent employee, not a contractor. While your advice applies to contractors (I am one myself and I use the same mentality as you advocate), it's not so useful for the OP's current situation. – Jane S Aug 19 '15 at 3:46
  • @JaneS: While I didn't explicitly write it, the mindset is easily adopted by employees. – wallyk Aug 19 '15 at 3:59
  • Perhaps you could edit your answer to make it apply to any employee, not just contractors. – Jane S Aug 19 '15 at 4:00
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    I don't think it's fair to compare OP's situation to bullying at all. – Air Aug 19 '15 at 4:10

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