Corporate Politics: Stay out of the Middle but Still in the Game

Ever find yourself in one of these awkward situations?

  • Boss-bashing. Your co-worker starts venting to you about what a lousy boss you have. You sense she wants you to join in the bashing.
  • Fishing. You know of tension between two colleagues, and you have a good relationship with each person. One calls you, fishing for why the other one is upset with her. And you know why.
  • Sucking up. You see your colleague sucking up to your boss and having way too much undeserved influence with her. And you sense he’s trying to shut you out or make you look bad.

Watch out. It’s easy to get sucked into the middle of these situations and do something (or not) that will come back to bite you politically.

Here are a few suggestions for being politically astute while keeping your integrity:

  1. Don’t ignore your sense of smell. When you smell tension or weirdness between two other people, and you feel the pull to get in the middle, consider your next steps carefully. All three of the situations above are politically charged. And all three require extra emotional and social intelligence. The weirdness for the first two is the scent of “triangulation.” (Triangulation is a psychological term describing when one person is pulled into the middle of two other people’s conflict.)
  2. Beware taking sides. Usually, the cons far outweigh the pros when you pick sides in someone else’s conflict – especially when you know both people well. In the boss-bashing and fishing situations above, it’s probably better to be empathetic and supportive rather than agreeing and taking a side.
  3. Set healthy limits. It’s ok to offer support or helpful advice to your colleague as they navigate a difficult relationship situation. But if you start feeling pressure to take a side or to speak on behalf of someone else on a delicate topic, it’s time to draw the line. Try “I’m not comfortable talking about Julie like this without her being here.” Or “I really think Stan needs to hear this from you.”
  4. Focus on building your relationships. Don’t try to fix a relationship problem that is not yours to fix. The best support you can provide (e.g., in the boss-bashing and fishing situations above) may be encouragement for one person to approach the other directly. And when there’s not a conflict, like in the sucking up situation, stay on the high road but stay in the game. Strengthen relationships with your boss and others you want to influence in a healthy and proactive way. Too often well-meaning people back away in naiveté, disgust or self-righteousness: “I won’t play this political game!” Unfortunately, when we step off the political playing field completely, we not only jeopardize our own career advancement, impact, and influence, but also our team’s. And our organization misses out on our full contribution.

We can be relationally and politically astute without either getting sucked in too far or checking out altogether. But it takes a keen sense of smell, healthy limits and proactive relationship management.

Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults. He loves helping leaders achieve effective relationships and results that matter. You can reach him at or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr.

Image credit