It’s a simple, real-world fact — and one most people still do not get: Today, most people lose their jobs not because they messed up or made some costly mistake at work, but because they don’t understand “workplace politics.” In fact, being politically savvy can be the skill that helps you keep your job when you do make a mistake.
Unless you are a hermit living in a cave, you are in some kind of workplace, whether it’s in-person, remote or hybrid. And that workplace inevitably has politics. You cannot bring together two employees — employees who often have competing agendas — and not have office politics.
My definition of workplace politics is “the difference between what is right and what is effective.” How often in your career have you been right, but everyone hates you for it?
That’s the gap you need to understand and be able to work. I would never advocate for walking on others to get what you need, but I do believe in understanding the unspoken messages of your workplace and tapping into the flow of power to accomplish your agenda. I think of it as “how to shake the tree and get the resources you need.”
One of the most important political alliances to cultivate is your relationship with your manager. Start by asking yourself this question: “Do I actually manage my relationship with my manager, or just try not to make them mad?” Most people do only the latter. Turn that around and start creating a more positive, effective relationship with your manager by answering the following key questions.
1. What Is My Manager’s Preferred Method of Communication?
Is it face-to-face, electronic or voicemail? I once had a manager who responded best to voicemail. He wasn’t big on face-to-face interactions because they required too much time. He could return five voicemails in airports faster than he could type texts or emails on his phone. If you left him a voicemail, you almost always got an answer the same day, especially when he was busy.
This strategy also made me look very self-sufficient because I wasn’t always in his office asking questions. On the rare occasion when I asked for time on his calendar, he would move me to the head of the line because he knew if I was asking, it was important.
2. What Time of Day Is My Manager Most Receptive to Talking?
Your manager may be a morning person or more open to longer conversations as the day winds down. If your manager is talkative and you need a quick answer, check their calendar and go see them 15 minutes before they have a meeting or before they typically leave for lunch. Is there a particular day of the week that is better for your manager than others?
I know one governmental group that waits until Wednesdays to ask for anything important from their manager, because on Tuesdays the manager meets with the board of commissioners and Mondays are spent preparing.
3. When My Manager Needs Advice, Who Do They Consult?
For those of you who have seen the “Godfather” films, think of this advisor as your manager’s “Consiglieri.” Build a good relationship with this person so they say good things about you to your manager. Remember: this is someone to whom your manager listens and whose opinion your manager greatly values.
4. What Are the Last Three Business Books My Manager Read?
Any book your manager spends valuable time reading, you should read as well. I know one manager who wanted funding in the budget for an additional person but knew his manager hated any increase in headcount. His manager was a great fan of the book “Good to Great.” Even though the manager was not much of a reader, he read the book because his manager so valued its insights.
The manager justified his request by saying he needed “the right people on the bus in the right seats” (wording that comes straight from “Good to Great”). This resonated with his manager, and he got the OK to hire the new person.
You can also be politically savvy by giving your manager the gift of a business book you’ve recently read and agree with. This allows you to use the author as an expert to convert your manager to your way of thinking. Be sure to inscribe the book on the inside fly leaf and sign your name. This way, every time your manager opens the book, they are reminded of the gift. And if they lend it to another person, you will appear to be someone whose opinion your manager values.
If your manager is not a reader, you can still use this strategy. Simply select a book that is short but packed with insights so your manager will be willing to spend an hour reading it.
3 ‘Political Rules’ for Successfully Dealing With Managers
Stay neutral with new managers. When you get a new manager, you will be barraged by people asking you what you think of them. These people will repeat what you say throughout the organization, so say this: “They seem very smart, but I haven’t worked with them for very long.” This gives your new manager the benefit of the doubt and is both noncommittal and positive.
When your manager says something nice about you, do not deflect the compliment with modesty or with humor by cracking a joke about “maybe this is a good time to ask for a raise.” This devalues the compliment and creates an awkward situation for everyone present, even if they know you are kidding.
Here’s the perfect reply: “Thank you so much. That means a great deal to me coming from you.” You now have tripled the chances your manager will say more nice things about you in the future.
Last, but not least, never speak badly about your manager in the workplace — even if everyone else calls them “the spawn of Satan.” By not saying anything bad, you send a clear, unspoken message throughout your organization that you are patient, resilient and loyal — all of which are great qualities to have. You enhance your value and reputation simply by shutting up.