Simon knew something was wrong when Russell paid for the coffee. Russell was known around the office as a tight-wad and Simon suspected he was splashing out because he wanted something. Simon was right.
As Russell steered him to the back table in Costa, he started talking about the upcoming meeting on departmental budgets. It was going to be a tough budget round with a freeze on most spending plans. But Russell wanted his pet project to be an exception. As he knew Simon was charged with producing the spreadsheets for the meeting, he wondered whether he could be a special case.
Welcome to the world of of¬fice politics, where an ulterior motive lurks behind every desk. It’s all very well saying you won’t get involved, but you are involved simply by being there.
So what should young accountants do to ensure they navigate the maze of of¬fice politics successfully? Observe and listen, advises Phil Anderson, who touches on office politics in his classes at Ashridge Business School in Hertfordshire. But it’s not necessarily what seems to be happening that’s important, says Anderson. “You need to use emotional intelligence to pick up the signals that reveal what’s really going on.”
One way to do this, explains Anderson, is to look for decisions that don’t seem to be either logical or fair. There is almost certainly a reason why they’re not – and that reason will reveal something about the off¬ice politics of the organisation.
“Keep an eye on who’s talking to whom around the coffee machine and the water cooler,” says Anderson. “Who goes to lunch with whom? As a young accountant, be aware of those things and see what impact it has on decisions. It won’t be overt influence – it will be things going on behind the scenes.”
It’s particularly important for accountants to understand how off¬ice politics works because some of the toughest politicking in any organisation, whether it’s a small accountancy practice with a handful of employees or a multinational professional services ¬firm, takes place over f¬inancial issues.
Decisions on budgets, investment, pay rises, contracts, acquisitions, even supplier payment terms can easily become mired in the worst kind of office politics as people manoeuvre for positions that serve their own ends.
In such a situation it’s all too easy to get yourself into a position where you don’t know what on earth to do for the best.
“The starting point is always to remember your basic moral code,” says Penny Davenport, an accredited life coach, who has advised many professionals on how to handle office politics. “You’re not in the Roman senate, so behave like a normal digni¬fied human being,” she says.
Davenport has seen the worst side of office politics; where good people have been sacked because they didn’t play the game or simply because their face didn’t fit.
Oliver James, a chartered clinical and occupational psychologist, says there are three types of personalities that any young accountant needs to learn to spot and handle when it comes to office politics.
In his book, Office Politics: How to Thrive in a World of Lying, Back-stabbing and Dirty Tricks, he calls them a “dark triad” – psychopaths, machiavels and narcissists.
The psychopaths, he says, are highly compulsive thrill-seekers who lack empathy for others, rather like Jordan Belfort, the former stockbroker whose behaviour was immortalised in the film The Wolf of Wall Street.
Machiavels are people who behave in a cold and manipulative fashion, ruthlessly pursuing self-interest, like Henry Kissinger, explains James.
Narcissists are vain and have a sense of entitlement, a desire for dominance and a feeling of superiority. Think star footballers dancing a goal celebration.
James warns that people who have one of these triadic traits may also have others. And the worrying fact is that the number of such characters has multiplied in recent years.
James puts it down to pressures in the world economy that encourage this anti-social behaviour.
“The likelihood of your daily working life being troubled by a person who is some mixture of psychopathic, Machiavellian and narcissistic is high,” says James. “If you do not develop the skills to deal with them, they will eat you for breakfast.”
He says there are four key components of office politics skills, which people should learn.
Despite the fact that of¬fice politics usually gets a bad press, the experts agree on one point; used the right way it can be a force for good.
“I find more people now see it more positively,” says Anderson. “Possibly that’s because more people say they’ve got to live with it. And they are more aware of the benefits of networking and the importance of building positive relationships.”
Any young accountant can use office politics positively to aid their career, points out Davenport. “Start by reaching out to the people you like,” she says. “You have to be able to read situations as well as people.
“Think about them and the consequences of any actions you take. When presented with a situation, slow down and consider how to react.” And, above all, watch out for those who unexpectedly offer to pay for coffee
Four ways to play positive office politics
Chartered clinical and occupational psychologist Oliver James says you need for qualities to play office politics well
1. Be astute
This is the foundation of being the best kind of office politician. It’s all about reading what’s going on around you. If you can’t do that, you could find it results in other people taking advantage of you.
2. Act effectively
When you know what’s going on, you need to ensure you play your part effectively. That means devising the right tactics, directing them at the right people, and acting at the most favourable time.
3. Build networks
You must be able to foster relationships both inside and outside your organisation.
Knowing the right people helps you build your reputation and ease discussions when you want or need something.
4. Appear sincere
If your political persona and the ‘real you’ coincide, that’s fantastic. But if there is a gap between the two, you need to make sure that the ‘public you’ comes across as sincere in everything you do.