Ask people what they don’t like about their work, and some will probably complain about boring tasks or low pay. But many more will tell you that what they hate the most is office politics. Power struggles, backroom deals, and turf battles can turn even the most fulfilling work into a draining slog that costs workers their sanity — and costs business leaders lost productivity and good employees.
Completely eradicating politics from office life is probably impossible. But is there a way to minimize the amount of time and energy wasted on these sorts of intrigues? Former Facebook executive turned Sundial co-founder Julie Zhuo thinks she’s found a way, and handily for time-pressed entrepreneurs, it boils down to all of four words.
The 2 kinds of office politics
On Medium recently, Zhuo kicked off her discussion of office politics with an important distinction: disagreements caused by truly toxic people, and those that stem from differences about strategy or execution, poor communication, or clashing personal styles.
When it comes to the former, Zhuo isn’t much help. Her post focuses on generally decent and competent people with different visions of how work should get done. Though if you’re unlucky enough to find yourself sharing an office with a genuine jerk, there is plenty of advice from experts out there on how to protect yourself and get things done while you look for a way to exit the situation.
Zhuo focuses more on everyday tussles for power and influence. While these disagreements and personality clashes can send your stress levels sky high, she notes that you and your least favorite colleague still have one essential thing in common.
“The nice thing about work (as opposed to other things in life) is that it’s governed by a pretty simple rule: If your company isn’t profitable after some period of time, everyone loses their jobs. This means pretty much everyone at a company wants to see their company win, and win big!” she writes. You and your office nemesis might disagree about almost everything else, but you both likely want to keep your jobs and make lots of money.
Use that essential alignment to your advantage, Zhou counsels. “Instead of thinking Which one of us is going to defeat the other?” she writes, think: “Which of our positions is most likely to help our company win?” This tweak can help you see past personal annoyance and try to find ways to leverage your disagreement to actually make your work stronger.
Now add in this magic phrase
Let me guess, you have an objection to this sensible-sounding advice: It’s really hard to pull off in the moment. When your co-worker is hogging credit in a meeting or opposing your passion project, it can be difficult to see past your anger and remember that you are both essentially pulling in the same direction. What do you do then?
This is the time, Zhuo says, for her four magic words. If you ever find yourself “taking 20+ minutes to compose a 2-sentence Slack response” or “raising your voice in a meeting,” she writes, “it’s time to use the magic incantation: Let’s continue this tomorrow.”
“You can tack on a I’ve got more to say or I don’t think we can resolve this today or even I’m not feeling my best before the magic incantation, but use the incantation,” she adds. Conflicts can’t be resolved productively in anger, she reminds readers, and a little time away has a nearly magical ability to soothe our feelings and help logic prevail.
If you force yourself to step back when things start to get heated and use that time to remind yourself that, as annoying as your least favorite colleague might be, you both want what’s best for the company, Zhuo promises you can defuse most office battles before they really get going.