Think of me like an ambassador in a foreign country who doesn't want to anger the King, but also isn't going to do his bidding...
March 23, 2009 7:00 PM   Subscribe

I need tips for surviving in a highly political work environment.

I just started a new job that I'm pretty excited about, but I've been repeatedly warned about how political the organization is. While my job itself isn't very political I am nonetheless surrounded by people who are. To add to that there are many people who are my "superiors" but not my boss. I've been told I will constantly be put in the position of being given work to do by people who I need to stay on good terms with, but who don't have the authority to assign me work. Furthermore, I am NOT to simply do the work, I'm to divert it and run it by my bosses. I've been told it is likely that my "superiors" will specifically attempt to stop me from doing this. There is no clear chain of command within the organization, however I know who I specifically report to and they are the only people I am to report to or take assignments from. This is complicated by the fact that my bosses are on the other side of the country, but my "superiors" who do NOT have any authority over me per se, can drop by my office at any time. There are a lot of power plays going on around me, but I'm not actually implicated or vying for any power myself.

So what I'm really asking is for tips and techniques that will enable me to show these "superiors" my respect for them (they are really big on respect) while rejecting work I'm not supposed to do and wasn't hired to do. Diplomacy is not my strong suit, so I really need help cultivating and managing these relationships.

Also I should say, that while this sounds like a horrendous work environment, it really isn't and the majority of the people I have met so far are very nice and pleasant to work with. I just know what is coming at me very soon and want to be prepared.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
"I might have time for that, talk to [boss' name] about it." Basically, have the attitude that (for this purpose) your boss is your secretary who schedules all of your time. They may be counting on you being just another go-getter who wants to overextend themselves for future rewards, so playing underling will work to your advantage. "Sorry, I'm not allowed to say yes," stuff like that.
posted by rhizome at 7:07 PM on March 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

Sounds like you work in government. Everyone is always short of resources, and is always quick to spot an opportunity to wield a little extra influence or harness an available resource. Resisting these opportunists is one of the first things you learn when you starting working for "the dark side".

I work in a similar situation to yours. In fact, it's almost exactly the same, and I've had a lot of annoyances and troubles over the past couple of years.

Two things that I have that have are:

- I've created quarterly and yearly workplans with specific activities and measurable outcomes; I also knock every outcome out of the park. This is important.

- I've kept a copy of my job description posted in my office.

This way, if I'm asked to do something, I can point at either of these documents and determine if the request is something that I do.

You're going to have to figure out who your allies are. Is your boss an ally? Will s/he back you? Is s/he actually intelligent? Does s/he make good decisions that are based on doing what's right or are based on sound assumptions and methodologies?

If the answer to any of the above is "no", you need to identify another ally. The best allies are typically influencers - people who are able to marshal and influence the opinions of their peers. There will be one of these people amongst your "superiors" (this is a terrible word - they are your clients at best, or "key stakeholders" if you don't actually formally provide services to them).

The only way that you are going to get through this "terrible" work situation is to work for yourself. Decide what your core values are, and make decisions based on those values. In terms of outcomes, really invest yourself in achieving those outcomes.

Most management jobs are political like this. Think of this as a major opportunity, a major hurdle that must be cleared. You will be successful because you are going to work hard to develop the necessary socio-political skills.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:29 PM on March 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

"Sure thing, Sally, I'd love to help you with this. I've got a couple of other things I'm in the middle of at the moment but once those are taken care of and I've run it past the Boss Man - you know how he can be! - I'll give it my full attention. I'll let you know as soon as I've been given the go-ahead."

The impression you are thereby giving is:

1) I am doing other things
2) Nevertheless, I am happy to help you with your things
3) But my superiors want to be appraised of what things I am doing
4) As soon as they give the thumbs-up on things, you'll be the first to know (e.g. don't bother me with "Have you started on x yet?")
5) ...and if it turns out that they give the thumbs-down, then that's an issue you'll need to raise with them.
posted by turgid dahlia at 7:48 PM on March 23, 2009 [9 favorites]

This sounds like a disastrous work situation, no matter how "nice and pleasant" everyone seems from the outside.

If your boss really is your boss, and it's really true that your "superiors" have no power to assign you work, and that, furthermore, your boss *forbids* you from doing their work without her ok, then you just need to tell your "superiors" straight out that they have to go through your boss. If they give you any trouble, then ask your boss to back you up.
posted by footnote at 8:17 PM on March 23, 2009

This sounds like a disastrous work situation, no matter how "nice and pleasant" everyone seems from the outside.

Ditto. I've been in situations like this before, and the impression that people are nice and friendly will almost surely give way to the unpleasantness roiling underneath, in no time.

The problem is that in political situations like this, actions aren't guided by normal, rational standards, but by labyrinthine networks of personality, patronage, and favoritism.

Such environments are uniformly awful places to work, in my opinion, unless you enjoy playing power-games.
posted by jayder at 8:42 PM on March 23, 2009

Turgid Dahlia speaks with great wisdom. But avoid making comments on how demanding a task assignor can be.

Also, drop the term "superior" when referring to senior colleagues or management. Perhaps they are supervisors or managers. This is unless you live in a rigid cast system or perhaps have a job as a scullery maid in pre 20th century England.
posted by mattoxic at 9:45 PM on March 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

ditto what mattoxic said.

"cc" is your friend. Every time a non-boss boss asks you to do something, smile, wait for them to go away, then write them an email about how you don't have time, cc'ing your actual boss. It's amazing how understanding people quickly become when you have a paper trail and someone of equal or higher rank in on the conversation.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:00 PM on March 23, 2009

Oh. My. God. This was my last job.

This is basically the worst work situation you can find yourself in - at the mercy of multitudes of "superiors" who can assign you work while you're left with the responsibility of clearing all assignments with another boss type superior. This situation SUCKS. Yes, you can put a nice face on it and play pleasant while you run to the supervisor to get the work cleared - but that only lasts for about a week - then comes the attitude from the other "superiors" and the throwing under the bus from the manager who can't say no. And then, the confrontation when you can't juggle the priorities.

Dear God - go work at Starbucks or something! You'll be happier.

((hides in corner...rocking quietly))
posted by The Light Fantastic at 11:48 PM on March 23, 2009

Re: federal civil service positions (possibly off-topic for the OP)

If it's not too late, find somebody a couple of levels above you and outside your chain of command to be your mentor/patron. Where I used to work in the (US) federal government, the best way to do this was by assignment to a temporary work detail. These are hard positions to get, but they are worth their weight in gold, especially if you want to make federal service your career.
posted by Napoleonic Terrier at 12:11 AM on March 24, 2009

This does sound horrible, but also, as some have said, like a good learning experience. One question: when you say "I've been told..." do you mean you were told by your boss? Or someone else? Because if your boss knows about this situation, then you need to turn him/her into an ally. You should follow the above advice about using him/her, in a friendly, non-confrontational way as an excuse to say no. But you should also let your boss know every single time someone else tries to give you work. I like the CC idea.

Also, be aware that there will be some people who will try to "punish" you for not playing the game. If they have no direct authority over you then this is likely to come in a social form, ie, being significantly less friendly. Be prepared for this and don't take it personally.
posted by lunasol at 7:32 AM on March 24, 2009

#1 thing is not to set the precedent right off the bat of being too nice and accepting work from them, so you are in good shape being warned ahead of time. I also cosign the idea of cc'ing the relevant people on email including your boss (and frankly if it is someone lower in rank that you who's trying to give you work, cc'ing their boss). IMHO, in political organizations it is vital in order to navigate the minefield and leave a paper trail to CYA.

So if you are given a request by someone who can't actually assign you work.. my suggestions: first tactic if possible is to get them to put in writing precisely what they want you to do - if you can politely ask them to spell it out in an email, that is easier to deal with. Then you can reply with an email to them to make sure you've understood precisely what work they need accomplished, but not committing yourself to doing it, and cc your boss.

Beware of leaving little openings where they can jump in and get you to do tasks instead of them - starting with making the request. Don't signal that you're trying hard to find a way to do the work for them; signal that you care about following the correct process and rules. (If there are no formal rules/process, you have to find a way to use this to your advantage, or else they will.) In my experience at a highly political clusterf*** of a workplace, the more complicated and difficult and requiring signoffs is the request process, the easier it is to divert work to other people or not to do it at all. The goal is to really depersonalize the way you're diverting/offloading their work, under the guise of following correct procedure for handling requests.

So, they drop by your office and try to hand you project X. "Great, I understand you have project X, can you send a precise request to me by email detailing project X and its requirements and cc my boss?" (if this isn't done when they email, reply and cc your boss). If there is a formalized process already, get them to follow it. Then you tell them "OK, I have priorities that occupy my time for the next few weeks/months. I see the requirements for project X are A, B, C, and D, and if you send the requirements (eg, do most of the work) to my boss, s/he will be able to evaluate what resources can be assigned to project X" (cc your boss again and maybe their boss, if relevant & not likely to be stepping on a political landmine).

If I had it to do over again I would have learned every rule to the letter, and remembered at all times my job description to the letter, and never agreed to take on work that used skills beyond it unless specifically requested by my actual boss. Rules, policies, process, procedures, job descriptions, anything formal in writing is your friend because you use that to do everything by the book at all times - thus, diplomatically pushing aside these requests is about respecting the organization's rules, it is not personal.
posted by citron at 7:30 PM on March 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

« Older How can I make my Aeron taller?   |   Have son, will travel (to Berlin) Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.