Navigating workplace politics

By Scott Rude / Guest Column

Climbing the corporate ladder is a worthy goal. But many of us are more concerned with doing a good job and being rewarded and recognized based on merit, without regard for political artifice.

Negotiating complex corporate dynamics and the sometimes-negative political traps can be daunting and disheartening, but there are a few helpful strategies professionals can use to counteract these issues:

Understand a company’s culture

You are unlikely to find a company advertising its flaws on its website or when you apply for employment, so professionals must be aware that there are often two cultures within an organization: the stated culture and the real culture.

Stated cultures are found in handbooks, bullet points on wall plaques or statements on website “About Us” pages. The real culture takes more study to understand.

As a personal example, I once interviewed for, and was ecstatic to be selected for, a top role with a Fortune 500 company. I was impressed with the stated mission and its values, and the people I met were very capable and engaging. When offered the job, I felt the opportunity was a great fit. But in my eagerness to take the role, it turned out that I hadn’t done my due diligence. Within two weeks of joining, I found the company’s leader to be highly authoritarian and the antithesis of the company’s value statements. All of his direct reports feared him.

We often think of the interview process as a situation where we must be at our best and impress the decision makers. That’s certainly true, but we also can’t waste the opportunity to thoroughly investigate and learn the real, unstated culture of an organization.

For instance, take those values you found on the website and test them. As you meet with company leaders, managers and peers, let them know you were intrigued by their values and would like to discuss their meaning and how they are ingrained in work practice. Find out what happens when counter behaviors are exhibited. If you consistently hear enthusiasm and answers that are aligned at each level, you have a good idea of what the true culture is. If, on the other hand, the messages vary or are confused, don’t fight the tide — let it take you to another place where the culture is true and a reasonable match for you.

Get a personal board

Most of us would like to believe our abilities and achievements speak for themselves — and often it does work that way, but not always. Assuming that merit should be a large determinant of workplace success, how can we ensure it works that way?

Being good at what you do is great, but just as important is being known for having done it. How do we do this without seeming like a self-promoter? Involve others. Most of us have taken the networking mantra to heart, and our associations have grown through LinkedIn connections, former co-workers and bosses, industry events, etc. From this network is where you will choose your personal advisory board, where you are the chair.

Your board should have roughly five to seven respected people — mentors, peers, role models, educators, those you admire and who you trust to give you sound advice and candid feedback. Your advisors have an interest in you, and will provide you with necessary connection and informal development guidance to help you succeed. Find, develop and nurture this valuable source of wisdom and guidance.

Onboard the right way

Some people believe it is best to jump into a new job and impress their new team with their skillset right away. My tip? Slow down a minute. It is in your interest, and the company’s interest, for you to learn the culture, how the company works, how people get things done and establish critical relationships. Taking a few weeks up front to really understand the environment, the team and its customers before diving in will help you avoid early mistakes and contribute to your team at a higher level, and pay great dividends over the long haul. •

Scott Rude is an instructor in management and organizations at the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business, as well as a strategic advisor on organizational change and growth. Contact him at