6 Things every Engineering Student should know – Part 6: Play Politics

Over the past 6 weeks, we have been in a series pertaining to things every Engineering Student needs to know.  We covered 3 topics for undergraduate life, and today we conclude the series with the third and final topic for the workplace.

This may seem surprising, but I am actually recommending that you play politics at work.  Stick with me on this one:

The “P” Word
Don’t be alarmed – I don’t mean what you think I might mean.  I’m not suggesting that you do anything unethical or deceptive, but instead that you take some simple steps to understand your organization, promote yourself, and protect yourself.

I am convinced that politics does not have to be a bad word, or even a bad thing.  In its most basic sense, politics is nothing more than figuring out who gets what.

Wherever there is an organization, there are two things: People and finite resources. This invariably leads to politics – someone has to figure out how those resources are allocated among the people.

For the workplace, those resources can be money for raises & bonuses, opportunities for promotion, travel slots for a conference, or even the best parking spaces.  Whatever the resource is, politics determines who gets access to it and who does not.

The key lesson here is that politics exists everywhere.  Everywhere.  There is nowhere you can go where there are people and no politics.  If you think you’ve found such a place, chances are that you’re not looking hard enough.

This leads me to my next point:

You are already in the game
How many times have we heard or said something like this?

I’m not going to suck up to anybody.  I’m not going to play politics.  I’m just going to keep my head down and do my job.

This may sound like a good idea, but this mentality can actually work against you in a few ways:

First of all, it does you no good to “refuse” to play a game that you’re already in.  There are only two choices when it comes to workplace politics.  You can either play the game on your own terms, or you can be a pawn for someone else’s agenda.  Either way, you are in the game.  Why not play for your own team?

Moreover, this is a competition.  Remember: resources are limited (There aren’t enough jobs for everyone to get promoted), and the spoils go to the victor.  You’re competing for those spoils against people that are playing the game on purpose, and to make matters worse, many of them aren’t playing by the rules.  Some people will use sex, bribes, and outright deception to claw their way to the top.  If you fail to do anything, then you don’t have a prayer against someone who will do everything.

Finally, so much of workplace politics is about being smiled upon by your superiors.  Think of it like this: If you keep your head down, then no one can see your face.  If no one can see your face, no one will know who you are.  It’s impossible to advance in your organization if no one knows who you are.

Don’t just be a random person who works in Engineering or Finance.  Be known by name.  Play to win.

You will have enemies
Counting votes is the most fundamental of skills in politics, and that is no different in the workplace.  It pays tremendous dividends to determine who is on your side and who is not.

Just because you’re a nice person who is bright, young and talented doesn’t mean that everyone will want to be your friend.  You don’t have to do anything wrong for people not to like you – you’d be amazed with the reasons people come up with all on their own.

For new engineers, jealousy is definitely something to watch out for.  It can be tough to spot, so you’ve got to look for the motivations behind the behavior.  If you find that someone seems to be giving you a hard time for no apparent reason, stop and think about the situation.  If you look at their job history online and realize it took them longer in their career to get to where you are, that might be the root of their resentment.

Don’t worry about other people’s feelings – you can’t change them anyway.  What you control is how you respond.

If someone does seem to have it in for you, you’ve got to respond, but you don’t do it by sinking to their level.  You do it by first becoming blameless, which you do by delivering results.  Then you go on a strategic offensive: Identify people in the organization that are firmly in your corner (You have been building your network, right?), and leverage those relationships so that your allies vouch for you in their departments and at their level in the organization.

Your boss, for example, can be a key ally.  The more powerful your allies are, the better off you’ll be.  These relationships become increasingly important if your adversary wields power in the organization.  When you make a mistake, don’t let your adversary have the last word: Have allies ready to stand and defend you.  Not only will they help minimize the impact of your mistakes, but they can magnify the impact of your successes.

If you want to come out on top, you’ve got to go into your job with both eyes open.  Recognizing that not everyone will be on your side is a part of that.

Learn to Observe Power
There are two kinds of people in an organization: Those who have power and those who don’t.  Whether we’re talking about a church, business, or a Government, there are always the haves and have-nots of power.  Your organization is no different.  Understanding who the power brokers are will help you know where to tread, how to choose your allies, and how to size up your adversaries.

Have you ever noticed that some people seem to have a way of getting what they want? They just accomplish what they set out to do – It’s almost as if they just say the word and things get done. This person’s power in the organization is considerable.  As allies, these people will help you get things done – promotions, new assignments, etc.

There are others that just seem to be able to get away with anything.  It’s the most perplexing thing to observe at first – behaviors that other employees wouldn’t dream of doing are commonplace with this person.  Sometimes they may be rude, unprofessional, or violate company policies, but they remain invincible somehow.  This is another form of power.  As an ally, this person is very good at standing up for you when adversaries seek to undermine you.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are those that never seem able to get anything done.  They talk and talk, but no matter what they plan to do, it never seems to happen.  This is someone who either has very little power in the organization, or doesn’t know how to use the power they have.  No one trusts them in the organization, and because of this, their support as an ally just doesn’t go very far.  You can’t count on them to do anything, because even if they try, it probably won’t get done.

These are just a few hypothetical examples.  The lesson here is to discover where power lies through observation.  When it comes to workplace politics, observation is a key skill.  It has the benefit of providing information to you without revealing what you know to everyone else. This is a strong and advantageous position to be in.

In summary, understanding workplace politics will help you avoid rookie mistakes and keep you from being blind-sided by events. It doesn’t have to be taboo – you’re already playing the game, whether you know it or not.  Acknowledge that you will have enemies, and utilize power in the organization to deal with them.

So that concludes our series on 6 Things every Engineering Student should know!

I hope everyone has enjoyed reading this series as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.  6 Weeks, 6 Articles, and 7,100 words later and there is still so much left unsaid.  I’ll probably take a few points and explore them in more detail over the coming months.

Until then, stay tuned.  Thanks for reading, as always.

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