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February 5, 2023

How to Get Ahead: Embrace Office Politics

office politics

Ed. note: This post originally appeared on the Accountingfly blog.

I think most people fall into one of two camps when it comes to office politics. There are those people who think it shouldn’t matter much when it comes to getting ahead. And then there are those people who think that it’s the only thing that matters when it comes to getting ahead.

As usual, the truth is probably somewhere in between those two poles. Those who believe in the pure meritocracy are deluding themselves. And the group of people who think only the Machiavellis of the world get promoted will eventually trip up on one thing or another.  

Early in my career, I thought my smarts, hard work, and collaboration would propel me forward in my public accounting career. I wanted to rise above political BS and get ahead based on merits. It’s not that I didn’t socialize or try to build relationships with people, it just wasn’t a big priority to me. My work would speak for itself, and I’d get recognized for it.

I’m thinking about all this because I read this Harvard Business Review article on the topic. This is a good passage:

“Everyone can see how hard I’m working,” we tell ourselves, or “Everyone knows how good my work is. All you have to do is look at the results.” Believing in a just world feels good. […] “I didn’t want to play office politics or be perceived as a brown-noser, self-promoter, or someone who rose because she was buddies with so-and-so. I was always told that the cream would naturally rise to the top.”

A few years after I left accounting, I had a Big 4 executive tell me that politics didn’t matter, that the best people always find their way to the top. I reacted incredulously, and even today I don’t think that’s altogether true, but I do believe that how people build relationships and communicate has a lot to do with getting ahead. I wish I would’ve learned that sooner.

My attitude — that politics didn’t matter and those who played the game were slimy, disingenuous phony baloneys — was probably one of the biggest mistakes I made in my public accounting career. I thought politics meant brown-nosing and playing games to earn undeserved recognition and favor, but really it’s about communicating with the right people in the right way. It means communicating effectively with people that you might not like or who you find repulsive. It means learning how to manage up. It means getting way outside of your comfort zone sometimes. These are all hard things to learn! And that’s probably why so many people dismiss “politics” — it doesn’t feel like it should matter but in reality, it matters a lot. Better get used to it.

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