The Office Politics Game: How to Climb the Ladder Without Being Assassinated On Your Way to the Top
You’ve seen it all before: the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Soon-To-Be “The Star” joins the office with every intention of making you look bad – while being obscenely chipper.
But then a senior banker piles the workload onto our brave young Analyst and he withdraws from everyone one else and pretty soon, he’s just a pitted useless rock that everyone avoids.
So how can you avoid these same pitfalls when you join a new office?
“Don’t get involved in office politics” is common advice, but there’s one glaring flaw with that: office politics can still get involved with you.
Even attempting to stay “neutral” is reason enough for some to make you an enemy.
Being able to read and react to the dynamics around you is vital for anyone looking to get ahead (or even remain) in their corporate environment, and rarely is it truer than in the finance world (OK, an exception may apply if you’re trying to win the Iron Throne).
So how, specifically, do you keep advancing on your way to the top without falling off the ladder as your rivals swat it away from you?
The Following Are Lethal and Should Be Avoided:
1) Looking at Explicit Materials / Doing Stupid Things Online
Corporations keep company policy documents – in fact, you probably received one alongside your contract. Read them. Obey them.
If you break these rules you’re being foolish – and you’re also laying a trail of material that may later be used against you.
More devious parties will let things pass without correcting you, for the express purpose of stocking up their armory in case they want to knife you later on.
Keep in mind that nothing ever dies on the Internet.
Comments and stories you posted 5 years ago could easily come back to haunt you, and recruiters and bankers will almost always search for your name on Google before hiring you.
Oh, and it doesn’t even have to have your name attached – just look at the comments from this reader who lost multiple banking job offers by requesting advice online.
2) Breeding Vampire Emails
Never write an email you wouldn’t be happy to leave pinned to the front of the office door, let alone send it.
Sure, it might seem amusing… or a great way to relieve stress… but it could also result in the death of your career.
Everything you produce should pass the ‘sunshine test’.
If the email doesn’t pass this stress test, then in the best-case scenario some hung over or absent-minded officemate will inadvertently forward the poisonous paragraphs and in the worst case, a malignant operator will store it for future use.
In any event, plenty of finance employers provide line managers with reading rights of their employees’ emails, so you should assume that others are reading your emails unless company policy has explicitly forbidden it.
And unlike normal companies, banks are required to keep all emails ever sent/received on record.
So if you look at what you wrote and wouldn’t feel comfortable showing the entire world, resist the temptation to hit “Send.”
For Safety’s Sake, Do Try To:
3) Read Between the Lines
So far, so good – this basic stuff is easy.
The implicit rules are much harder to work with: not only do you need to spot them, but you also need to realize that they’re at least as important as company policy.
In fact, plenty of your colleagues won’t be aware of the finer policy details, but they’ll be acutely conscious of any of YOUR social infractions.
Study your colleagues and their interactions as much as you can – little side comments; raised eyebrows; people trying to please others.
While finance is hierarchical, social capital doesn’t always follow lines of seniority – more senior staff will suck up to juniors if they have valuable internal or external connections, or simply a wicked sense of humor.
Alliances form. So do romances.
And if you’re ever tempted to complain about someone, assume that the person you’re about to confide in is having an affair with that person.
For all you know, they are.
Being sensitive to the implicit rules is enormously important in your own country, but even more so abroad, where cultural differences can lead to all sorts of misinterpretation – so if you’re headed to a job or a trip overseas, or even just dialing in internationally, do your homework.
This might seem obvious if you’re moving somewhere like Japan, where there’s a lot of visible ritual, but even similar societies such as America and Britain carry hazards.
For a Brit dealing with Italians, asking if they “would possibly mind” doing something might make it seem optional to them (anyone from the UK knows it translates as ‘Do this!’), whereas an American in England might have to tread more carefully simply because their accent is more likely to stress the ‘I’ at the start of a sentence – a simple inflection that can carry the impression of brashness (locals put the emphasis on the verb).
4) Be Nice to Secretaries
People who are rude to waiters really shouldn’t be surprised if their food gets spit on in the back kitchen – and that same line of reasoning applies to personal assistants.
One strategy consultant I know did a study of a FTSE 100 client and found that, in terms of the flow of decisions, the most powerful person in the organization was the CEO’s PA.
She had the power to control, prioritize, and even veto issues. And if one of those issues is of great personal importance to you, then you really don’t want to let it slip to the bottom of the pile.
Aside from this, the PA gets to see all the juiciest material – everything from the MD’s schedule with his 5 mistresses to salary/bonus details, warning notices, and a pretty good map of who in the department really wears the trousers.
You don’t want him or her leaking your secrets to others; conversely, if they are loose-lipped, being privy to the most salacious gossip can be both entertaining and illuminating.
At the very minimum, never take them for granted, and never be rude.
You don’t necessarily want to “suck up to” secretaries, especially if they can see through it easily, but you do want to make nice gestures occasionally and always take an interest in them.
5) Go Drinking with Your Co-Workers
You spend more time with these people than with your romantic partner (if you have one) – so why on earth would you willingly spend any more time with them?
For a start, avoiding office socials out of habit can leave you socially isolated.
If the hordes smell social weakness, they close ranks and it can be a tricky position to claw back from.
Without being there to represent yourself favorably at after-work drinks, this can happen with alarming alacrity.
Avoiding invitations can come across as a snub – while the occasional “it clashes with my existing plans” is seen as perfectly normal, doggedly avoiding any commitment may come to be seen as a lofty ‘rejection’, at least until you’ve settled in properly.
But there’s another solid reason to attend: as people get progressively plastered, they let their guard down a little and disclose their true feelings about the organization and the people within it.
Act on this how you will, but it’s always useful for navigating agendas and biases.
6) Never Bet Against the House
Company cultures vary widely, and you need to calibrate your behavior to the house style.
In calm or thoughtful environments, aggressive or overly playful behavior will irritate your colleagues; conversely, in highly competitive or raucous workplaces (see: the trading floor), blending into the background will render you ‘dull’.
If one approach fits all, it’s to be likeable.
Don’t be an arrogant ass: be humble, yet competent; try hard to understand where everyone else is coming from, and pay special attention to how individuals communicate.
Some people simply lack emotional intelligence, and may be abrupt or inept at communicating.
Avoid this yourself by communicating a bit of context for any requests you make, and pushing back gently for more information when you need it, all while remaining respectful. Studies show that simply adding a reason to the end of your request considerably increases your chances of getting it granted.
Being entertaining is even better, but it’s trickier to pull off without offending someone in the process: you better make sure you’re hitting the right note, or you’ll be a target for references to The Office.
And don’t whine. Constant negativity makes people run for the hills – not least because they don’t want to be tainted by association.
Ultimately, if you’re friendly, fun, and make the other people in your office’s lives easier where you can, people won’t want you to go wrong and you won’t have to contend with too many daggers in the night.
Minefields and Organized Crime? Your Final Warnings…
7) Meetings are Minefields
It’s a peculiar quirk of human nature that plenty of otherwise smart and sensible people go through a character transformation when they enter a meeting room.
IQ levels drop. Focus evaporates. Conversational tangents become oh-so-appealing.
It’s lethal stuff, and your carefully planned meeting can get sidelined by anything from holiday anecdotes to hobby horses, or whatever a participant has been queuing up to buttonhole someone about, and you have to tread a thin line between ticking the necessary boxes without stepping on egos in the process.
Before you converge, just think about the meeting in more depth: what are the participants looking to get out of this meeting? Is it information? A decision? An ego massage? To be seen looking good in front of their manager?
Often people are unaware of what’s really motivating them. So make sure everyone gets what they want, even if they don’t realize they want it.
8) Beware the ‘Godfather Gambit’
A friend was relating to me the story of a colleague on his trading desk…
A charming, talented, good-looking prince of a guy: everyone wanted to be in with him, and be liked by him. And he was perfectly happy to dispense this patronage.
Yet beyond a certain point he’d nudge people toward doing things for him: things that would occasionally blur the line (use your imagination).
In their haste to please him, plenty of colleagues did this. Then – BAM – he owned them. From that point onwards, he had the power to blindside their careers, and only afterward would they realize it.
Confidences and seemingly benign impropriety can be turned against you, so don’t assume your relationship with someone will always remain cordial – especially in a high-stakes environment like finance.
Although it may run counter to both public and internal perceptions of the finance industry, the best, most consistent, defense in the world of office politics is cultivating integrity.
To do so isn’t bunny-hugging hippiness; it’s a solid practice.
It guards against those who might try and sink a hook into you, and ensures that you don’t need to keep track of your screw-ups and keep tabs on everyone else who knows about them.
And it also means that when the chips don’t fall into a pretty pattern, you won’t be the one stumbling down off the ladder – or being hauled away in handcuffs as the police raid your building.
Don Levett is the author of How to Find a Graduate Job. He hopped from anthropology at UCL to private equity and then to a Bain-spinout strategy consulting firm. He has brokered relationships between entrepreneurs and early-stage investors, produced top finance events in Europe, and currently works at a startup.
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