The Most Important Skill They Never Teach You in School

By Dan Callahan

The most important issue you will face at work is the one thing they never teach you.

Office politics.

Yes, office politics, the issue that is often the worst criticism you can level at a company, as in “there’s a lot of office politics there.”

Well, it turns out there’s a lot of office politics played everywhere. In fact, it’s often what determines an employee’s level of success in an organization and those who master it are the winners, like it or not.

At its best, it’s the art and science of fitting in, of learning how to be a team player and of being recognized for good work. For instance, when a new assignment comes in for you to complete, it’s knowing to ask who is most interested in that project (hint: if it’s the boss, it goes to the top of your priority list).

Many who enter the workforce fresh out of school struggle with this concept. On its surface, office politics sounds like a trivial, almost petty practice. The issue of who likes whom makes work feel like a replication of the worst aspects of high school. But, anyone who has studied organizations will tell you that politics is in every group of workers. It is one of the means by which workers are measured and developed.

In fact, office politics represent the most human endeavor in the workplace. It focuses energy and time on getting along and enhancing your communication skills. It’s as much about self-awareness as it is about learning how to be liked, the trait that can be the least important skill in office politics. We all know examples of the well-liked who flamed out after failing to perform.

In fact, there’s a reason this skill is not taught: it is an innate ability acquired only through experience. You can learn elements of it, but, how they are applied in your job varies greatly, organization by organization.

Here’s some common sense elements you can offer your employees about how to be successful at the art of office politics:

  1. Always know how you are perceived by others in your organization. Generally, you want to be perceived as a leader who enables success, but you don’t want your ability to dispense knowledge to get in the way of your work (think Cheer’s Cliff Clavin).
  2. All projects are created equal, but some are more important than others. Always keep in mind the importance to the organization of what you are working on (see example above of the boss’s favorite project).
  3. Understand the power structure of the organization. It’s always helpful to have a good relationship with one of the top people, but be careful how you do it. It is best for them to come to you as a resource than for you to pursue them to get ahead.
  4. Work quietly, quickly and efficiently. Ask questions when you’re stuck, but when you’re talking to a busy boss, don’t present only problems; bring a possible solution along with the question.
  5. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, just don’t make the same mistakes over and over.
  6. Your co-workers are watching you: sneaking away from work on long lunches or early getaways will be noticed. If you have to leave early, always make sure you aren’t leaving work for others to do in your absence (or if you have to, express your gratitude for their help).
  7. Find ways to connect with your co-workers through shared experiences and interests. If you go out with them socially, don’t drink too much or be the last to leave. Be careful about jokes. Your sense of humor may not match up with your co-workers.
  8. Care about your work, your co-workers and the company. Often the little things you do for others are more important than grand gestures or deep conversations.
  9. Above all else, do your job well. That is the most important criteria by which you will be judged, politics or not.
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