The word politics, it’s been said, is derived from the word “poly” meaning “many,” and the word “ticks” meaning “blood sucking parasites.”
Well, not really.
But regardless of its linguistic roots, politics can be tough. Including office politics.
Studies show that many people who claim dissatisfaction with their jobs are actually okay with the work itself. Their dissatisfaction is with relationships—with managers and/or coworkers.
A new book offers guidance on navigating the sometimes rough waters of office politics. It’s titled Simple Is the New Smart. Its author, Rob Fazio, suggests how to build confidence and inspire yourself in the workplace.
Rodger Dean Duncan: What’s your advice on how to deal effectively with a bad boss or dysfunctional colleague?
Rob Fazio: While someone who works for a difficult person may think there is no way out, there actually is. The first thing to know is that you always have a choice and should do everything you can to avoid getting “stuck” in a job or working for a boss who creates a dysfunctional environment. Sometimes when the smart thing to do is find a way out from underneath that boss or to find a new organization. While I know that’s rarely an easy option, here are some tips.
Be your boss’s boss. Alpha personalities sniff out fear and leverage it to their advantage. I worked with an executive who had a boss that would lose his composure, yell, and blame everyone else. What we worked on was not letting what his boss did or said throw him off his game. He got really good at doing the opposite of what his boss did in conversations. The more emotional his boss got, the less emotion my client demonstrated. The more the boss would focus on what went wrong or who was to blame, my client talked about what could be done going forward and what solutions were possible.
Know it’s not personal, it’s professional. A common mistake is to take dysfunction personally. It has nothing to do with you. It has to do with what’s going on inside your boss’s head. Often, ineffective bosses become magnifiers of the pressure they feel. The more you can realize that your boss is likely under a great deal of pressure and he or she isn’t looking to do something negative to you, the better able you are to be empathetic and focus on seeing things from a different perspective. Keep reminding yourself it’s about the job, not you. That will allow you to remain composed and focused on what you need to do, rather than how you feel.
Duncan: Honest conversation, you say, is the best tool in dealing with behavior issues. Give us an example of a difficult situation and how you recommend using honest conversation to address it.
Fazio: A banking client of mine was struggling with being elevated to co-head along with another colleague. The challenge was that my client felt she was getting put up against the other co-head, and only one of them could be successful. She was at a loss because she thought the only option she had was to win or lose as she and her colleague fought for “turf” and who would own which clients. Just like in any business some of their clients would naturally elevate each of their numbers. If one of the co-heads got stuck with non-performing clients, it would impact their success and upward mobility.
What I encouraged and coached my client to do was have an honest conversation with her colleague. She asked for a 1:1 meeting. She started with honesty. She shared her view that if the two of them didn’t find a way to create a fair playing ground, the deck would be stacked against one of them. She proposed that rather than having their boss determine who serviced what clients, they should make those arrangements together and then speak to the boss as a united front. This was difficult because it was a risk to put on the table that there is a natural competition between the two of them. The other person could have decided not to go along with the plan and taken advantage of the situation. The outcome was that a stronger level of trust and transparency was created between the co-heads. Also, their boss respected the landscape of healthy competition they created.
Conversations are the most important tool for success. We all have conversations that we avoid because they’re uncomfortable. You can go into a conversation with both strength and vulnerability. Transparency and honesty will get you further in the long run. If someone burns you, you know where they stand and can protect yourself for the future.
Duncan: Stress can be a killer (literally). What are the similarities between the stress felt by a professional athlete and the stress felt by a business executive? And how similar is the advice you offer to deal with it?
Fazio: Both athletes and executives face the pressure of winning by maintaining edge, energy, and focus while faced with countless distractions. We’ve learned from sport psychology that there’s a sweet spot where there is enough pressure to help us perform, but not so much pressure that is makes us melt down. As you gain experience, skills, and confidence you’re better able to handle pressure and perform.
The advice is the same whether you’re a professional athlete or, what I call, a “business athlete.” First, See it. Realize that whether you are taking the game-winning shot or having a challenging conversation with a colleague, it’s a performance. As with all performances, you need to envision ahead of time how you want it to go. Second, Say it. The most focused athletes are able to focus when it counts. One way to do this is to have a trigger word that gets you ready to perform. The best way to come up with a trigger word is to think of a time you were your most confident and at your best. What word is associated with that moment? Third, Start it. In football, coaches often say that, after the first snap, the nerves go away and your skills take over. Rehearse how you want to start your performance and what messages you want to get across. Then go for it and get in the game. Stress declines after we build our skills and experiences.
The advice ends up being similar in that for both you need to have a strong level of psychological swagger. If you believe in yourself, you create a foundation from which you can focus on what you can control, which is your mindset. This leads to success, no matter if you’re in an office building or on the playing field.
Duncan: You suggest that listening is bad for your health. Please elaborate.
Fazio: Listening to negative messages can limit us mentally and physically. On the physical side there’s a strong connection between negative self-talk and lowering our immune systems. There’s evidence suggesting that self-talk can impact our health and actually change our brains. According to Stanford University neurology professor Robert Sapolsky, a half hour of complaining every day physically damages a person’s brain. This goes for both the listener and the complainer, as exposure to negativity peels back neurons in the hippocampus. That’s the part of the brain used for problem solving and cognitive function. In addition, according to the Mayo Clinic, listening to negative self-talk, whether from yourself or others, can contribute to poor cardiovascular and gut health. On the mental/emotional side, negative self-talk and complaining can contribute to high levels of stress and even depression, which lead to poor bodily health.
My focus is mastering what only you can master: what you tell yourself. The downside of being a rookie at listening is that you listen and internalize everything from anyone you view as more powerful than you. The result is listening to the wrong things from the wrong people and internalizing the messages that become the ties that hold you down. If you listen to the wrong messages it will limit your progress toward your success and worse, diminish your drive.
This column by Dr. Duncan was also published by Forbes where he is a regular contributor.
Follow on Twitter @DoctorDuncan