Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Office Politics for the Non-Political

Chapter 9: Paint Your Environment Part 17 (conclusion)

In the last post, I embedded a video in which Harvard Business Review authors Kent Lineback and Linda Hill champion the cause of using politics for good purposes. I know that politics is like kryptonite to many people, in part because politics can be so illogical, unethical, or just plain mean.  But there are ways to play politics without catching an ethical disease.

Politics is about building a network of people you can count on, people who work together for common cause and for mutual benefit.  Lineback and Hill argue that people who don’t play politics associate mainly with friends at work, and therefore have less access to information and allies. In fact, without allies you won’t be able to defend yourself (or your team) from decisions that may compromise your values.

Lineback and Hill wrote a series of great tips for building a network in their HBR article “Stop Avoiding Office Politics.”  Here are two that I particularly like:

  • “Work with others for mutual advantage, not just your own.”  I would add that mutual advantage also means there is something in the exchange for you too. Doing favors for someone without expecting anything in return at work is not a way to build a network, it is the way to become a doormat.
  • “Build ongoing, productive relationships with everyone you need to do your work, as well as those who need you, not just those you like.”  This means that you may need to work with scumbags, assholes, eggheads, or airheads that you normally would prefer to avoid. 

“Dealing with Office Politics” on Mindtools.com gives an excellent overview of the how’s and why’s of office politics. I particularly like the advice for dealing with what I call the Foxes, “people out for themselves and not the common good.” Mindtools suggests that you “Get to know these people better and be courteous to them, but always be very careful what you say to them.”

One person I interviewed used this strategy to good effect. “My conversations with (The Fox) were always transactional – I never mentioned anything personal, because I was concerned it could be used against me.”

If you are like me, someone who isn’t a natural politician, beginning to engage may seem a bit daunting.  My suggestion: First try just one new thing. Little by little, you will start to acquire some chits that can help you shape your environment, and give you more choices.

In the last and final chapter, we’ll explore what life looks life after you’ve busted your corporate idol.

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Does Avoiding Office Politics Mean Abdicating Your Power and Responsibility?

Chapter 9: Paint Your Environment Part 16

When I first entered the corporate world, I was under the illusion that I was above politics. I did excellent work, and thought that data and passion for the customer would carry the day. I explained my philosophy to a new mentor over lunch, at a time when I was looking for answers to my crazy life.  I think my exact words ended with “I don’t play politics because I don’t need to.”

He laughed.  “Ok,” he said after taking a sip of coffee. “You may think that, but I assure you that others in the organization don’t think that way.”

Boy was he right.

If you’ve made it this far through the book, you probably realize that I’ve grown up quite a bit since then.  On some level, I knew about the people who I now call Foxes, manipulators only out for themselves.  But I failed to recognize that sometimes a Fox has power, and makes getting more power a priority.  (In this post, I share an example of A CEO firing someone for being manipulative.)  I, like many others, viewed politics as inherently manipulative and bad.

Eventually, I woke up to the reality that politics exists in every company. In good companies, politics revolves around competition between groups for resources, or differing views on business strategy.  In unhealthy companies, politics is about ego, empire building, and gets very very personal.

By not playing politics I was abdicating some of my power, and thus unable to  effectively do my job or set boundaries around my home life. I was severly under-gunned when I was attacked by a powerful Fox.

Politics is a tool, and like any tool can be used for good or ill.

As a prelude to the next post, I highly recommend this video. Harvard Business Review authors Kent Lineback and Linda Hill champion the why and how of using politics for good purposes. A bit dry buy very informative, especially the first few minutes.

What is your  experience with office politics?

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Upward Management Do’s and Don’ts

Chapter 9: Paint Your Environment Part 15

Earlier in the chapter, I shared how I was productive but perceived as “not committed” at my last job before I left the corporate world.  In a way they were right: The company was not the most important thing in my life.  But, I was committed to producing high quality, professional work.  Frankly, I would have stayed longer if I had been promoted.

I’m happy with how things have turned out, but sometimes I wonder if I should have been more like Sheryl Sandberg, COO at Facebook, who used to hide her 5:30 departure to take care of the kids.  I wanted to make a statement, and went out of my way to let everyone know that after-hours was out of bounds.

Successful Upward Management requires firm boundaries and clear communication. For example, I did not answer emails in the evening. I didn’t ask permission not to answer, I just didn’t. My manager once told me how he learned not to expect a response from me to weekend emails until Monday morning, and he was surprised that he was ok with it.  Here is a little secret – I did check email once a day on the weekend, but I did not answer because it was never an urgent issue. I trained everyone not to expect an answer, and they stopped sending me email.

Poor upward management came when I got arrogant: I told my manager my strategy. It pissed him off, and rightly so.  I was showing off, and I think my arrogance held back my career in an unnecessary way. Had I to do it over again, I would have remembered that they are more senior, and should be treated with some deference and respect. I don’t mean ass kissing, but I tended to treat them like we were equals, which we weren’t.

I think my desire to champion workplace flexibility was a holdover from an earlier time in my career, when I thought that I was above politics. I could have quietly gone about keeping my life in balance.  I had what I wanted: a life that put people first, and I was no longer caught up in corporate idolatry.

Moreover, work was not the center of my identity. I had a growing community of friends outside of my company. Together, these helped me set boundaries, and limit my work to 50 hours a week.

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The Business Case For Sleep

Chapter 9: Paint Your Environment Part 14

There will be times when your manager asks you to drop everything and put something together for her. When that happens, don’t be afraid to delay another deliverable, with a quick note to the other stakeholder explaining why it will be late. I found that transparency is respectful to the other party, and over time builds mutual respect.  And if need be, I let the two managers duke it out over what is a higher priority.

Your manager may not like owning the responsibility of the trade off, especially if you have a history of working weekends, and staying late to deliver last-minute “urgent” requests.  BUT, limiting how many hours you work will make you much more effective, and a greater asset to your manager and the company.

Take the issue of sleep deprivation. A recent study by the CDC found that 30% of Americans get less than six hours of sleep per night.  On a personal level, sleep deprivation leads to higher rates of traffic accidents, and some serious health issues like high blood pressure and diabetes.  In short, being tired is bad for you.

James Maas, who taught Psych 101 to 2000 people  each semester when I was at Cornell, studies sleep deprivation.  His website  and summarizes it well:  “Recent medical research proves that sleep deprivation literally “makes you stupid, clumsy, stressed out, unhealthy and will shorten your life.”

I admit it – I spent plenty of time sleep deprived, and it didn’t feel that bad to me.  And the latest research explains why. Brain imaging studies comparing rested and sleep deprived people have shown that “ individuals who are sleep-deprived experience periods of near-normal brain function, but these periods are interspersed with severe drops in attention and visual processing. …The periods of apparently normal functioning could give a false sense of competency and security.

And aside from the research, lets step back and think about it.  Can you do your best work if you are tired or sick?  Can you effectively lead a team if you are stressed out?  Without recovery time, can you be creative and sharp?

When having the conversation with your manager, remember to make a business case, not a personal request.   Even the Wall Street Journal admits that “a good night’s rest is good for business.”  Tired people make mistakes.

What has been your experience with rest and work?

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Learn How To Say “No” To Meetings

Chapter 9: Paint Your Environment Part 13

As you shift your priorities to people and start to work fewer hours, there will come a point when someone starts pushing you to do more.  There is always more work to do, and if you don’t set firm boundaries around our work, no one else will.  As Jody Thompson, champion of ROWE pointed out in the youtube video in the last post, what is the point of getting your work done early if it only means that you will be given more work?

Even if the corporate culture is nowhere near adopting ROWE, you may be able to negotiate something with your manager to get more flexibility.

The key to ROWE are the first two words – Results Only.  The first step is to identify the three things that will have the most impact.  To figure this out, I would write out a list of everything I was working on and the put them in rank order. I went to my manager with the list, explaining why I though certain things would have a larger impact.  Usually he agreed, but occasionally we changed the order.  And when he asked me to do something that took a lot of time but wasn’t in the top three, I would say “ok I can do it, but it will mean that X deliverable will be pushed out a few days.  Is that ok, or would you prefer me to wait on the latest thing that you need?”

Next, I declined meetings for anything that wasn’t in the top three, especially last minute or “one off” requests.  They add up to a lot of time during the week, and those extra hours take away from time at home. Sometimes it was hard, because other parts of the company thought I should be helping them, especially sales.  But I held firm if taking the meeting meant working at night. (And sometimes I adjusted, to make sales support a top three.)

A priority list gave me the power to say “I’d love to help, but my manager has told me that A, B and C are higher priorities.”  I tried to by sympathetic, and whenever possible offered alternatives, like a web site to find information, a promise for time in the future, or someone else who could help.

I always made sure I delivered high quality, on time work for the top priorities.  After all, it was a contract, to trade time freedom for higher quality work.

Often a manager is on board with the theory, but has a hard time sticking with it in practice.  Next post, more on this upward management challenge.

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