(Or how I learned that staying late at the office shouldn’t be the new normal)
Are you impacted by office culture and office politics? You’re not the only one. Read how I identified the politics in an office where I worked and how you can try to influence change in your own office.
I recently asked my readers to help me pick a topic to explore in a blog post and was not surprised by the choice to explore office politics. To be completely honest, this topic has scared me to explore because I have approached my blogs from a personal perspective on my jobs and what has impacted the development of my values. I have been waiting to write about this topic because I knew it was going to stress me out and make me worry about the politics of relationships in offices I haven’t worked in for years, decades even!
However, I have committed myself to explore professional development topics from a place of vulnerability, really looking at the choices that reinforced my personal values, or helped me re-learn a new way to express my values. These behaviors have been challenging to share, but all of the behaviors have been my own.
And in this topic, I am now including former co-workers who helped shaped the office and its political landscape. In order to maintain some professional respect for these co-workers, I will refrain from talking about the institution but will use the preferred pronouns they expressed at the time to help me avoid talking in obtuse terms. I can only promise to tell the situations as I remembered them and as to how I processed the learning, and I respectfully offer to change any details I may have forgotten.
I have also decided to offer this topic as a series and will explore creating and challenging an existing office culture in this first entry. So here we go:
Creating and Challenging the “New Normal” Office Culture
One of the student affairs offices where I worked had multiple staff with similar titles and varying scopes of programming impact in the division. I was one of the longest serving staff members in this office, having been part of an office that was absorbed to create a new office. I had developed my own office culture I was comfortable operating in and knew the institution pretty well, having served in an interim leadership role for the prior year. Many of the staff that worked in the department were hired after the creation of the new department and were adjusting to the institution and its programming requirements.
As we began to work together as a staff over the first year, I began to see some behaviors I thought were very strange given my previous years working at the institution. Many of the staff in the department would talk about how late they were working every night, past the 5:00 pm office closing time, in order to complete projects.
Since many of them stayed late, professional and personal relationships were forged after-hours and a sub-culture emerged that I felt excluded me. I had always left the office when the office closed since in my previous office I was the sole professional working and the office work stopped when I left the building. But in this new set-up, the office was active long after I left and I felt very excluded. The staff would go to lunch together, having decided the night before about where to eat the following day. Movie trips were planned that excluded me that made me wonder if I was missing invitations or was intentionally excluded for some interpersonal reasons.
Having worked for several different supervisors in this institution up to this point, I always felt the pressure to get my work done during to day, not wanting to show that I needed more or extra time to complete it, and if that were the case I reserved that for the weekends when I could come in and work alone. I never made it a habit to work late nor ever had the kind of work that required more than the normal 9-5 hours to do it.
Not Who I Wanted to Be
One very painful experience in the department that flummoxed me was that I couldn’t connect with my peers in ways that I had used previously and that my personal strengths around interpersonal communication and brainstorming, trouble-shooting, and connecting pop culture to programming efforts were unwanted and ignored.
I had always been the go-to person in my department, and within the division, for these skills when working with other staff and could not understand what had changed in the culture that made these skills undesirable. Coupled with feeling like my ability to advance in the department was going to be measured by my ability to make this team work, I just couldn’t figure out how to operate in this office culture that had been so different for me previously.
I was confused and feeling very isolated.
Trying to Ignore the Office Politics
I couldn’t ignore the office politics that were happening all around me, and I wasn’t sure how to solve any of the situations in which I found myself being impacted. As Harold Laswell noted, “office politics can be understood as the unwritten rules that determine who gets what, when, and how — a promotion, a budget for a project, a say in the boss’s decisions — and who doesn’t.” It was becoming very apparent to me that these unwritten rules were affecting how I was going to be successful in the department. Especially as a new professional, all of these situations were new to me and I felt unprepared to manage them with the skills I had learned in graduate school.
By nature, I am a very social and connected person, and my ways to deal with this had not merited me anything positive. As a young staff member with less than five years professional office experience, I am certain I did not know how to ask questions or challenge this new status quo. In retrospect I resolved myself to doing nothing, feeling very powerless to the influence of the staff and my supervisor. But the situation didn’t stay like this forever. I’ll share three things that happened that helped change the way the politics were impacting the office.
One – The Retreat (Or when I accidentally locked myself in a cabin bathroom for half an hour)
There were several ah-ha moments that happened for me during a retreat weekend with the entire staff, but one that sticks out in my head was going over the results of our all-team DISC Leadership Assessment. I was familiar with the assessment through my work with LeaderShape, but had not shared my inventory style with my co-workers in meaningful ways.
When we all shared our results, it became very clear that my preferred style was incongruent with everyone else, in particular a staff member who almost regularly never worked with me. What I thought were unwritten rules were really based on our incongruent work-styles and coworker expectations. And yet these styles and expectations were, in fact, putting pressure on all of us to work together without really knowing or understanding what we all needed to be successful.
I thought people knew or understood my needs for being included. Honestly, I believed that my skills for team-building and trouble-shooting were shared when we hired everyone the previous year. I figured that people take the time to get to know me and I would get to know them, as had happened in other offices. But after discussing our results, all of the hidden rules became very apparent and I began to ask more critical questions and call out behavior that I thought was exclusive. What I learned was that I wasn’t as approachable as I had originally thought, and I was called out for being rude and arrogant about what I considered myself an expert in doing. Looking back I can agree with this sentiment, though at the time I wasn’t ready to hear about my negative personality traits.
What I learned: Learn How Your Peers Work and Share Your Own Expectations
Discussing our personal leadership assessment styles was a pivotal point in our professional relationship building because it helped frame our behaviors as something that could be accommodated and expected, rather than conspiracy and rumor-filled behavior. We wanted to work better together and now had tools to do just that. We all agreed: no more hidden rules. I also learned that my avoidance style was hurting the team, as much as I felt hurt by their behaviors. It was also my responsibility to learn how to speak to their work-styles as much as it was to learn how to work with mine.
Two – Chipotle for the Win
One of the challenges I had faced was identifying the office dynamics but making sure I was “calling people in” to change the situation rather than “calling people out.” I really did want to become an insider and knew this would happen better in neutral territory than in an office or meeting room in our building. The Center for Creative Leadership suggests “You don’t need to always say what is on your mind or jump right in with your solution. If you are composed (especially when things don’t go your way), people are more likely to be at ease around you, allowing you to have difficult conversations, gain support and build political influence.”
It was important for me to have more impulse control to stay centered on improving relationships rather than just getting my way – and doing this over burritos and tacos at Chipotle was one of the best ways to do just that. We gave ourselves time to get to know each other, with purpose during the day, rather than save those conversations for when the office was closed.
We made more of a point to do lunch together as frequently as we could together, but at least once every two weeks. In order to maintain relationships that moved the department forward together, we needed to have friendships that revolved around something other than work. I have found that encouraging planned group lunches, where we know more about what is happening in our non-work lives, always improves the political landscape since we know more about what motivates people on the team and what brings them happiness. And I can say that I really miss those Chipotle lunches!
One personal relationship changed dramatically because we spent more time talking to each other about our work and what interests we had outside of work. I also learned that my gregarious, chatty nature was contrary to her very structured, to-do list oriented work-style. We agreed that when she stopped by my office, we would be chatty and brainstorm ideas that helped us both, and in her office I announced my to-do list to discuss with her and left when I was done so that I respected her work-style.
What I learned: Relationships Matter
It was important for me to establish personal relationships in order to feel connected, but equally important is establishing personal boundaries that respect our workplace and work-style. Since working in this office, I make sure I get to know my co-workers and respect the environment that supports their success, but make it very clear that in my office I need to feel comfortable being myself. In that way, it encourages me to get out of my office to do some work and invite others to me when I want to use my strengths to solve issues or brainstorm. So far, it’s worked out well!
Three – Speaking the Truth
I wish I could say that the office politics, and my ability to survive in this department, were so easily solved as shared above. But truth be told, it was a tough environment for me to thrive and move ahead. About a month or two before the end of my contract, I remember talking to one of my colleagues about my experience working with him and the others in the department. I shared my daily challenges I felt getting such negative feedback about my performance from my peers from my supervisor, but never directly from them. He gave me a look, a tilt of the head, and said “But that’s what we were asked to do….weren’t you?”
What I had thought was an extension of creating our own personal working relationships, building our own office culture, was in fact a purposeful manipulation of the other staff to report negative behaviors and rumors to our supervisor, who then used them to make personnel decisions for only some of us. While I was no longer surprised by this manipulating behavior on the part of the supervisor, it certainly surprised my coworker. I remember that he went to speak immediately to the supervisor about this complicit behavior he was now being accused of participating in.
What I learned: We Need to Call Out the Culture
I have seen this done over and over again, at different institutions, and I am not proud to say that sometimes I have instigated it myself. Truthfully, I believe we learn how to wield power from those who have trained us and I certainly learned some of those same negative team-building skills.
I learned there is power to speaking about our personal experiences with the office culture and its political climate with our peers. Capitalist ideology pushes workers to compete with each other and never to share personal pain or challenges, as it can be used against each other (see above for proof). What I have since learned is that I must continue to be vulnerable and transparent with what I am seeing and feeling in order to make sure our team moves forward together. This has worked for me only because I am no longer afraid of the consequences. This isn’t the case for everyone and I can only encourage you to seek allies in the organization with whom you can share this information to influence the greater organization.
I have also learned, when working with new student affairs staff and graduate students, that we must acknowledge the pitfalls of creating this type of insider-outsider office culture, one that demands we all be seen as sacrificing personal time to be considered as having the most impact. But I learned to call out these behaviors for what they are – manipulating the dynamic of the team to reflect their personal best intentions rather than the best intentions for the individual and the office separately.
Call Out The Culture
This is why I now call out people who stay late in the office. I want to make sure we are judged for our merit and not the number of hours we spend behind a screen, among other team-oriented behaviors. We can all do better to improve our working office culture and I hope you find ways to improve yours.
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Mindtools: 7 Ways to Use Office Politics Positively
Harvard Business Review: Playing Office Politics Without Selling Your Soul