I was recently asked to give advice to a professional that was really struggling with the best way to succeed in a divided workplace. She asked: “At my job, you can tell that employees are divided in many ways. I’m not the type of person to fall into groups because it’s what everyone expects or it’s how you get things done. So, how can I get ahead, as an individual, without compromising my character?”
A divided workplace is tricky business – here’s how to use your head and keep your soul:
It’s totally understandable why you’d like to be a grown-up and stay above the fray. Who wants an office that feels more like a schoolyard? But the truth is, if you want to succeed, you can’t get there (totally) on your own – we almost always need to do some work as teams. And, unfortunately, all offices are somewhat political. People naturally – or it sounds like in this case, more forcefully – forge relationships with colleagues that can help them succeed. For better or worse, you’re probably going to have to make some alliances, too.
Upgrade your alliances. Obviously, you can’t become a close ally with someone that you don’t fundamentally respect, so at least choose like-minded people who principally care about what really matters to you. I assume that includes helping your company be its most successful, finding ways to best serve the customer . . . and maybe even creating a business environment where the “politics” don’t feel aggressive and manipulative, but authentic and natural. When you do find colleagues that you feel comfortable working with make an effort to create an ongoing business relationship with them. If you meet over the course of a one-time project, try to make a point to say hi in the cafeteria or elevator or wherever you run into them. It might sound silly, but try to embrace it as a skill set in itself – because, as you’ve experienced, not everyone knows how to connect with other people in a subtle or sophisticated way.
Be the hero. If you can learn to think of it as an opportunity to show your ability to work well with others, to connect and engage, and to find a way to build a singular customer-oriented focus, you may find it’s enjoyable, not cumbersome. And, even those people with whom you find it difficult to work . . . remember that it’s a very valuable life skill to be able to find common ground. Believe me – tough personalities tend to be easy to spot. Thus, if you’re one of the people who manages to get along with them, you’re the hero. So, be the hero! Do your best to meet each person more than halfway . . . but try not to think of it as you’re doing more than they are. Instead, think of it as taking 100% ownership for your 50% of the relationship. You are all responsible for each other’s success, and that includes a positive and productive workplace, even a divided workplace. And you need them too – you need your colleagues in order to be your best professional self.
Giving up isn’t giving in. Finally, it is important to keep your own sense of integrity. So, if you find that you’re constantly having to adjust until being flexible feels like being compromised, you might have to accept it’s time to look for another work environment. Try to leave on a high note by getting out while you’re still able to keep a professional, positive relationship with as many people as possible. They may one day be references, clients, or – wait for it – even colleagues again.
Robert Kovach is the Director of Leader Success for Cisco’s Leadership and Team Intelligence Practice Area. He has been an advisor to leadership teams of Fortune 500, FTSE 100 and FTSE Global 500 companies on driving business strategy through executive leadership effectiveness and organizational agility. The opinions expressed in this blog are his own and not those of Cisco. Contact him for speaking enquiries.