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Political games. Play it your way.

By Ruth Tearle

control-the-gameAre you the victim of office politics? Are you at the end of a political game? Do you feel that someone is setting you up to fail? You can’t prove anything, but whenever this person gets involved, things go wrong for you. He may be charming to your face, and others seem to like him, but you know that behind your back, this person is sabotaging you. You don’t trust him, and you don’t feel good around him.

Wake up.

You are losing the game!

The bottom line is you are feeling thwarted and your confidence is waning. Others are losing respect for you, as the game player spreads innuendos about your ability.

Don't allow workplace politics to go on too long. If you continue playing this game, before long you will have lost your confidence, your chances of career advancement, and your reputation. It is time to stop the game before you destroy your career, your health, and your relationships people who are important to you - your family and your real friends.

Stop playing their game and start playing your own game.

To do this you need to understand that politics is not personal. It is a game. People choose different strategies for playing the game based on their strengths. To fight back effectively, you need to understand the strategy that your opponent is using, and how your response might be helping your opponent to play to his strengths, and highlight your weaknesses. By changing how you respond to his attacks, you can change the nature of the game. You can choose to fight back more effectively. You can start playing your own game, your own way.

Use the following 5 steps to get your power back.

1. Understand game strategies

In sports, players choose different strategies for winning. For example tennis players often choose to use one of the following strategies:

  • Strategy 1 - Skill and ability.
    These players focus on winning matches and tournaments by playing more skillfully than their opponents.
  • Strategy 2 - Popularity and limelight.
    These players focus on earning money from endorsements. They increase their earning power by being more attractive than the other players, and by doing things that get them into the limelight. Some earn up to 15 times more from endorsements than they do from on-court earnings.
  • Strategy 3 - Dirty tricks.
    These players use a combination of psychological and dirty tricks to shake their competitors and force them off their game. They say and do things to get their opponents to lose confidence in themselves. They distract their opponents. They try to get them to lose their focus. To take their minds off the game. They even try to sabotage their opponent’s equipment.

In office politics, political game players use similar strategies to achieve good reviews, salary increases, bonuses and promotions.

The first step to dealing with office politics, is to analyze the current situation:

  • Which strategy are you playing? If you are feeling hurt by a political game, the chances are you are playing strategy 1. You value competence, achievement and follow a ‘win/win’ approach. You like to act in the best interests of the organization, and your teams. – And this approach is not working for you in this particular game!
    As long as he controls the rules of the game, you will be in jeopardy.
  • Which strategy, is the person that is upsetting you playing? Your opponent is probably playing by strategy 2 or 3. He or she likes to be in power. He/she gains power by networking and sharing favours with powerful people, or those with connections. His strategy is to win, by ensuring his competitors lose.

2. Understand the current game being played.

When playing a sport that involves winners and losers, coaches suggest that when you are losing, you rethink your strategy. To do this, you begin by analyzing the current situation, and understanding why it is not working for you.

2.1 Understand your opponent’s strategy

Which of these strategies is your opponent using?

  • He prevents you from using your strengths. He or she might:
    • Not support you in the 20% of activities you need to do or achieve to be successful.
    • Give you additional tasks to do so that you have no time to spend on those activities that may make you successful.
    • Criticise you for neglecting unimportant details which he insists is important. Why these tasks are important to him, is because they will distract you from what is important for you.
  • He plays with your mind, so you and others lose confidence in your abilities. He she might:
    • Tell you that you are not good enough. Not qualified enough. Don’t have enough experience. Are not strategic enough. Tactical enough…
    • Criticise you for being too much. Too strategic, too task focused, too people oriented. He hopes to get you to downplay your strengths.
    • Tell you what you should be doing – which is always some unimportant detail that will distract you from your goals.
    • Ignore whatever you have achieved or done, and focus on any tiny detail you haven’t covered.
    • Make promises on your behalf to others, that he knows you will struggle to keep.
    • Discourage others from supporting you by suggesting to them that you are not the decision maker, or by implying that you have some mysterious flaw.
    • See our Dictionary of business politics for more examples of dirty tricks used by organizational political players.

2.2 Understand how your response encourages your opponent to continue playing his game.

How do you respond? Are you encouraging your opponent to continue to play his game?

You are as responsible as your opponent for the way the game is being played.
  • Do you try to do it all? Are you trying to be so good that he/she can’t find fault with you? Are you working longer hours, cancelling leave, working weekends and neglecting your family and friends? If this is your response then you are playing into your opponent's hands. Eventually the stress will get to you and you will slip up. Failing that, your health and relationships with your family and friends will suffer. Eventually you will burn out. Either way, he wins.
  • Do you try to do or to be more of what he wants?
    • Do you try to downplay your strengths?
    • Are you trying to be accepted or liked by him?
    • Do you believe there is something wrong with you? Are you losing your confidence?
    • Has he got you so busy trying to be perfect, that you’ve stopped meeting and networking with other like-minded people?
    • Has he got you to isolate yourself and thereby reduce your political power?

If you answered yes, to any of these questions, then his strategy is working. You have lost your head. He wins. Unless of course, you choose to change the game.

3. Stop playing your opponent's game

Sports coaches will tell you that the key to winning or losing any game, is the ability to control pressure. This means you put your opponent under pressure by not allowing him to play his game or play to his strengths. Then you find ways to take pressure off yourself so you can play to your strengths.

Don't let your opponent continue to play his game.

Stop defending yourself. Stop trying to please the political player. Ignore his recommendations. His criticisms. His suggestions. See them for what they are. Distractions that are designed to put you under pressure and off your game.


Take the pressure off yourself.

Don't take his comments personally. Recognise that this is just a game and you can choose how to play it too. Accept that you are a threat to him, and no actions you take will ever please him. So stop trying to please him or win his approval. Stop trying to make him not get angry. Stop trying to influence of change him. Stop explaining, excusing or defending yourself.

Ignore his outbursts, and only respond to him when he behaves in a way that you appreciate. And take back your power.

4. Start playing your own game. Play to your strengths

  • Write down a list of all your strengths and your own values. Consider what makes you successful and happy.
  • Imagine what you would be doing, if there were no political games or if your opponent had no power. Now start acting as though this were true. Remember people only have power over you, if you choose to give them that power.
  • Create a new focus. One that allows you to achieve in a way you want. (See our articles how to achieve a focus.)
  • Budget your time. Spend 80% of your time on your core focus areas. Spend 10% of your time networking with like minded people, and 10% of your time on other issues.
  • Get political support from others. Take the time that you would have spent on defending yourself against your opponent, and use it to network with like minded people -people who value achievement and competence. Offer to help them with their goals. Tell them about your focus areas and ask them to support you. If you are working on a project, meet with all the stakeholders. Find out the benefits they want to get out of the project. Explain the benefits you want. Then discuss what each of you will to do achieve the benefits you all want.

5. Put your opponent under pressure.

  • He who writes the minutes controls what was said at a meeting.
    With support from your new networks, start changing the agendas of meetings. Ensure your focus areas and those of your supporters are always on top of the agenda.
  • Offer to chair or write the minutes of meetings. Or try to get one of your supporters to chair meetings.
  • Place your opponents agenda items that you believe are dirty tricks at the bottom of the agenda. Leave very little time at meetings to discuss these items.
  • Force your opponent to focus on defending himself or on getting air time at meetings, rather than attacking you.
  • Then use your time and energy on achieving what is important to you, your team and your organization.

If all of this seems too much effort, then remember, you have only one life. You can always choose to leave. Put yourself on the market and find a new job, at a company where your boss and colleagues have the same values as you.

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