September 2017 – “Come in. Close the door behind you.” The head of the team beckoned me into the glass office that overlooked the trading floor. Both him and my line manager sat with the same relaxed posture, leaning back in their chairs though I knew their ease was merely pretence. Both pairs of eyes followed me to my seat as they smiled, the same practiced smile I had become familiar with in the corporate world that normally pre-empted some bad news. “Thanks,” I said, settling in the seat opposite them. The office was bare, with nothing more than the bare necessities, exacerbating it’s cold feeling. The air was thick with tension as I sat down. I was three years into my role at the bank and I’d only ever known this office as one for sensitive conversations. This was a sensitive conversation…
“Thanks for your time,” my manager nodded to me. “Anytime. Thanks for sitting down with me,” I replied. “I want to get straight down to it PB… We’ve noticed a drop in your energy levels on the desk recently. You’ve been missing our morning meetings, leaving the office earlier and questioning responsibilities you’ve picked up. Given the people we’ve had to let go, it’s seriously making us question your dedication to our effort here. We need to know that you’re someone who’s in this for the long run. Now we know it’s been tough with so many changes in personnel and other juniors leaving but we need to know that you’re not someone who gives up when times get tough.” I was raging inside. The last few months had been nothing short of hell. The toxic environment had caused numerous members of the team to leave. Meetings had become dick measuring exercises and I had no appetite for office facetime. However, I had stuck it out regardless and now my commitment was being questioned? Despite, my resentment, now was not the time for arguments. I needed to pick my next words carefully and end the conversation quickly. Agree with my manager’s sentiment and it would amount to an admission of guilt and potentially start the clock on looking for my replacement. Outright disagree and I’d start a needless argument that wouldn’t benefit anyone. I’d have to keep it measured. “Whilst I can see where you’re coming from, I’d be genuinely disappointed if you thought that was the case.” I gestured expressively, impressed at my own bullshit. “Despite the difficult time recently, I’ve always strived to be a pro-active and resourceful member of the team.” I was doing quite well I thought, so I decided to throw in some self-deprecation to make the whole thing believable. “Now can I understand your sentiment somewhat? Absolutely. However, I don’t want the perception to be that I’m someone who can’t dig their heels in when times get tough.” (“Damn, I’m good!” I thought to myself. “Where’s Meryl Streep with my Oscar?”) The indignation in my tone was measured just right, straddling the line of sounding annoyed, but still respectful. I looked for any flicker of kickback or rebuttal from either of the two before me, still trying to keep my composure. It seemed to take ages for anyone to say anything, both managers watching me intensely, but I held my nerve and refrained from spewing anything into the hanging silence. My words seemed to have done the job though, as the head of the team broke. “We’re happy to hear that PB and you’re right, a lot of this job is about perception. We need you to understand the position you’re in. There’s thousands of young people who’d kill to be in your seat. There’s nothing out there that you can’t get from being here on this desk. Think about where you’ve come from… Think about what you’re earning versus your friends you grew up with. Why would you put that at risk?” I let the familiar speech wash over me. As much as I had been pragmatic in my approach, I was disappointed that I hadn’t been more forthright with my managers. I chuckled inside my head, as their monologue continued, “These guys wouldn’t get it anyway…”
Today – Welcome to the game that is office politics, where the top prize is the privilege of keeping your job and losers can forgo their career progression, dignity and sometimes sanity. Competency isn’t a pre-requisite, logic is absent and honesty is an immediate forfeit of the game. Be prepared to get your hands (and nose) dirty. Also, don’t listen to the rumours calling office politics a team sport… this is definitely a single player game. Before entering the working world, I had often envisaged success in the workplace as an extension of academic success. If I did well at school and Uni as a result of hard work and intelligence, surely the same would apply in the working world? How naïve of me. I soon realised that some of the most important turning points in my career would come as a result of instances such as the outlined, where messages would have to be measured, egos would have to be stroked and pride would have to be dropped. Politics at work is as old as work itself. It rewards the crafty and charismatic and is – something I’ve begrudgingly learnt – one of the most important tools to unlocking your future at work. Despite this, I still struggle a lot with the concept of office politics. Does it apply to everyone? Is it something I’ll have to put up with forever? Why should I? Can office politics fix the dodgy canteen menu? Can it solve world hunger? Can it fix my below average love life? For so many young people entering the working world, this will all be brand new. So, I’ve decided to draw up a list of a few cheat codes to get you on your way to winning at work.
Firstly, you should realise that if you’re in anything that look or smells like a job, you will come across some semblance of politics, so identifying it is an important initial step. The interesting part is that for such a big part of working life, it normally manifests itself in a pattern of unwritten rules. “I know you’ve finished for the day but we can’t leave whilst the boss is still here.” “Oh, those two have never gotten along so we normally avoid working with them.” “Ah, yes he normally sends that email at 7PM after he’s come back from the gym so that everyone thinks he’s still in.” At first, these unspoken truths will irritate you (they certainly annoyed me), but after a while you’ll notice the pattern and feel awash with one overwhelming thought: “I’m not remotely surprised by anything that happens here anymore”. Once you’ve gotten to that stage, congratulations, you’ve successfully identified the rules of your workplace politics game. The next step is figuring out whether you want to be a player or not.
To figure out whether you fancy yourself as an office schemer you’ll need to answer yourself one thing. How much does your job mean to you? Is it a part time gig? Or are you looking to build a career at this place? This is important because it’ll dictate to what extent you’ll take part in the politics game on a day to day basis. If you’re not interested in staying in a job long term, then it doesn’t make sense to try and scheme your way through the ranks. Conversely, if you’re looking to work your way up the ladder in a role then don’t think just doing your day job is going to get you anywhere fast. Networking with people outside your daily role, having colleagues who’ll vouch for you and visibility of all the great things you’re doing makes a difference. If you’re anything like me, this will be difficult. I tend to have a hard time verbalising anything good that I do, not because I don’t think I’m doing a good job (I haven’t been fired yet, after all) but because I just do my job and expect to be recognised for having done it well. Unfortunately, self-promotion and confidence is important in getting ahead at work these days. There’ll be exceptions as with everything, but in this tech heavy era, instant validation and an infinite number of quantifiable performance measures means the ability to be able to demonstrate and communicate your value to the workplace is paramount.
Now at this stage it’s worth pointing out the most important piece of advice. For all the fun and games in office diplomacy, draw a line at where you call it a day. What I mean by that is, for the most part, you’ll get used to some of the peculiarities of your workplace, even if they’re irksome. However, every once in a while, something will happen… You’ll be asked to do something questionable, get passed on for recognition or a promotion or find yourself taking home toxic work baggage where it no longer becomes worth it. Knowing and naming your limit on what you’ll have to do to excel helps put things in perspective. Understanding the value of your dignity and health will help you approach things with absolute commitment, knowing full well that any situation that doesn’t work for you ends on your terms. Contrary to the popular ageist theory, this does not suggest you’re weak or “some spoilt millennial”. In an age where increasing mental health issues and undue amounts of pressure is ever present in the workplace, identifying boundaries is infinitely more mature than perpetuating self-destructive behaviour. Trust me, if you take one thing away from this article, it’s that toxic games aren’t worth losing yourself over.
To conclude, I have by no means perfected the art of being the workplace finesser. A lot of doing well for me has been being humble, letting people run with their ego’s and staying below the radar. Although it’s hindered me slightly, the compromise is having a good balance of emotional detachment to my role and emotional investment in myself. The key for you will be finding the right balance that keeps you whole enough to keep playing the game.
The Poor Banker