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Surviving Office Politics

Navigating the halls of bureaucracy requires strategy and the occasional sacrifice.

December 22, 2010  |  by Amaury Murgado - Also by this author

Surviving the streets is hard enough, but the reality is that surviving the office can be even harder. Office politics and the bureaucratic process tend to be akin to a black hole that few escape intact once pulled inside.

Some old timers will tell you that the real reason we wear Kevlar is to walk safely in the halls of our agency. On the streets it's easy to know who is shooting at you; in the office, not so much. Ross Perot, former candidate for president in the early '90s, said it best: "War has rules, mud wrestling has rules, politics has none."

In an organizational hierarchy, bureaucratic politics share the same tendencies wherever you go. We attend classes on almost every subject imaginable but I can't think of one on how to deal with the political nature of law enforcement. The obstacles we encounter in a bureaucratic setting apply evenly to agencies with appointed or elected CEOs.

In the scheme of things, we can only influence decision-making so much; but as long as we do our jobs, we can walk away relatively unscathed in a politically charged arena. It's only when we don't do our jobs — or, even worse, use poor coping mechanisms — that our world starts to cave in. Let me share a few jewels I have learned over the last 23 years of my highly colorful career.

A Few Concepts

You have to start by understanding the difference between a manager and a leader. First, a manager manages things like schedules, time sheets, and budgets. A leader deals with people. A leader sets the tone, is a mentor, and tries to motivate his or her command on a daily basis.

The main difference between the two is that managers do things right, whereas leaders do the right thing. Therein lies the rub…the doing the right thing. Doing the right thing means different things to different people. For true bureaucrats it means doing the right thing for their careers. By trying to be someone instead of standing for something, the conditions necessary for a black hole start to form.

The next concept you need to understand is that office politics is nothing more than office relationships. I refer to this as relationship bubbles. No one is truly safe when creating a politically oriented relationship bubble because it can burst at any time. If you become a political liability or have spent all your political capital, you will find yourself outside looking in. Sometimes bubble people have a long ride and sometimes they have a hard fall.

In office politics, friendships are more important than skill sets. Political needs translate into practical needs. Relationship bubbles speak to issues of trust. Long-term friendships have a major impact on positions, assignments, and promotions. If you didn't get the transfer, it doesn't mean that the best qualified person did. All it really means is that you didn't, so don't take it personally. No one said life was fair and if they did, they lied.

Don't Always Take Credit

In general if you can answer two questions for a career bureaucrat, you have a better chance of affecting his decision-making: "What's in it for him?" and "How will his supervisor see it?" In past administrations, I have used this to my advantage. I have had to sell an idea by making it appear to be someone else's. If it was worthy, that person's supervisor would view him in a positive light.

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