Illustration: Ashley Siebels
Science of Work

How to navigate office politics, according to a trauma expert

Politics are everywhere, even in the office.

When we form relationships, we create the potential for differences in opinions and conflicts of interests. This is especially true in workplaces, where many Americans spend a significant amount of their time. According to Gallup, half of all adults employed full time in the U.S. spend an average of 47 hours per week on the job, with about four in 10 reporting that they work at least 50 hours a week.

There are countless challenging or potentially combustible situations that one can encounter in the workplace.

For example, coworkers could disagree about projects, undermine one another, or disengage with the team, which could cause resentment and blame. Competition and a perception of nepotism could create feelings of unfairness and frustration. Office romances could cause drama and disrupt the office. And, of course, sharing communal workplaces — and refrigerators — creates an environment ripe for misunderstandings.

Minor incidents and outright battles at work can negatively affect us — both on the job and off.

Office politics could cause us to get angry, which makes our blood pressure go up. We could become resentful and think that life isn’t fair. It could also cause headaches, backaches, and heartburn. We may even dread going in to the office.

So what can individuals do to avoid negative drama at work?

The ability to communicate clearly and appropriately with one’s superiors and co-workers is essential. Here are some communication and problem-solving tips that can help you navigate office politics.

Remember that we’re all human

Try not to take office politics so personally. No matter how good, fair, or appropriate you are, there will always be others who create conflict.

When in doubt, give others the benefit of compassion. They may have complications at home or have been through some horrible things earlier in their life that you have no idea about.

Pick your battles carefully

This is not to say shut down and choose not to engage at all. But if you’re like me, you have plenty of other things outside of work that take up your time and energy — significant others or spouses, children, aging parents, and community involvement, for example.

Most humans have a limited bandwidth, understandably. Ask yourself: “Is this office issue worth taking on? Will taking this on negatively drain my internal fuel for myself and my other responsibilities?”

Keep an open mind

Even if you don’t agree with others, it’s important to have a flexible and open mind and listen to others’ points of view.

You may learn to appreciate the other person’s argument or at least see where they’re coming from. The other person will likely appreciate being heard and may reciprocate by listening to your perspective.

Be kind

There will always be office policies or practices we find unfair, people we find annoying, and bosses with unrelenting or unrealistic demands. But we don’t need to make an excessive stink, pout, or whine about it. We also don’t need to lash out. Those are unhealthy behaviors for us, for others, and for our work environment.

Treat others as you would like to be treated. This is not to say that you have to like everyone or everything at work. That’s unrealistic. But if you are kind and respectful, you’re more likely to help the situation. Plus, there’s a greater chance that you can sleep soundly because you kept your integrity and honored someone else’s personhood.

Propose office guidelines

Some workplaces have very good office etiquette, and employees are respectful of themselves and one another. Good for those people! If you are not in one of those places, you may consider asking your colleagues if they want to create an “office manners” document.

This would not be used for policing. Rather it could set transparent ground rules that would help foster productivity. It could include common courtesies and consequences on everything from heating up smelly fish in the microwave to setting the office temperature.

Empower yourself

Office politics exist and can take a negative toll on individuals, teams, and overall work cultures. Learning and practicing good communication and problem-solving skills can help empower us to stay sane and productive.