I used to describe myself as “anti-political” in the workplace. I have a tendency to be very blunt and opinionated (a blessing and a curse given to me by my father) and have always struggled to embrace what I perceive as the shadow games and manipulations of corporate politics. I, rather naively, had always believed that my work would speak for itself and that good things would happen to those who produced results.

How many times have we read articles or heard TED talks that preach the virtues of hard work and tenacity as the hallmarks of success? Our society has always touted itself as a meritocracy, and upon graduating from college, I knew that the only way I could truly get ahead is to out-perform those around me.

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I would work harder, I would work smarter, and I would over-produce and over-deliver on the expectations my employers and corporations demanded. The quality of my work and production alone would bring the raises and promotions.

Unfortunately, the professional world doesn’t always work this way.

It wasn’t until about five years into my career that I started to notice some problems with my upward mobility plan. Executives who I had been out-performing—sometimes by very wide margins—were starting to get the promotions and raises that I was after. From time to time, I would get the formal emails announcing, "We have decided to promote Mr. Igor Incompetent to the role of Regional Vice President of Uselessness. Please join us in congratulating him.”

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I would always send the obligatory email congratulating the individual on their new promotion; however, to be completely honest, I would literally seethe on the inside. How in the world could this person get a promotion when I was out-performing them? It didn’t seem fair. It didn’t seem right. And I would often talk to those around me, attempting to receive some measure of validation for feeling slighted or passed over. Most of the time, my very well-intentioned colleagues and friends gave me the validation I was looking for, which only made my attitude worse. I now look back on those behaviors and feelings now and am quite ashamed of them. My idealistic view of the world being exclusively a meritocracy couldn’t have been more wrong, and it not only cost me in missed professional opportunities and benefits but also dragged down those around me.

After watching this time and time again, I slowly started to realize that you can’t be successful in this highly competitive world without understanding and even embracing the role politics play in our professional lives. When all is said and done, being political is nothing more than successfully leveraging relationships and perceptions. Ignoring or dismissing the importance of these relationships and perceptions can be devastating to your career. Here are a couple of things to consider:

  1. We need people to like and know us in order to get to where we want to go. Simply put, if people in charge of your career advancement aren’t aware of your contributions, they aren’t going to promote you. You must work hard to ensure people (especially your supervisor) know that you are a top shelf employee who is loyal, consistent, and professional. Find reasons to get in front of decision-makers. Show them that you will do your part to make certain that the company succeeds. Be a positive influence on the work environment. The worst thing that you can do is to be anonymous. As an old mentor once told me, “You must find a balance between being a ‘suck up’ and a ‘wall flower.’” Pretty sound advice.
  2. Being direct and confident can lead to the perception of being aggressive and arrogant. I have always loved productive conflict. There are few things that I enjoy more than an intense debate and honest dialogue. I thrive on it, and the teams that I supervise have almost always enjoyed the latitude to freely express their opinions during our discussions. However, not all people are wired that way. Insecure people can very easily feel threatened and challenged by those who are all too willing to “tell you how it is.” If your supervisor happens to be one of those insecure people, your promotability will most certainly be obliterated. Always save your genuine thoughts and feelings for those from whom you have a high level of trust. Walk softly with your opinions, be gentle with your feedback, and work on your relationships so that your intelligence and confidence work for you, rather than against you.
  3. Political savviness is simply another skill to be mastered. There is nothing dirty about gaining key contacts, improving the relationship with your supervisors, or making certain that someone's perception of you is positive. Work on these skills. Watch and learn from those individuals whose use of politics has put them into positive situations. Emulate them. When you combine exceptional results with political prowess, good things generally happen in your professional life.

In closing, I want to reiterate that embracing politics and having them work to your benefit does not, in any way, forfeit or reduce the importance of job performance. For consumer goods, no branding or advertising campaign will ever bring lasting success to a product that is defective. It is only when the quality is good—and customers are aware of its goodness—can it be considered successful. If you apply politics as a way to shine a light on all the contributions you are making, it becomes a force-multiplier and good things are more likely to happen.