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Feb 19, 2015

There are unspoken rules that exist in the workplace that colleges don’t teach and HR rarely trains on, and those rules are a powerful influence of who advances and who does not.

These are the “soft skills” that organizational leaders wish more of their managers and people understood.

Here’s a crash course in just five of those unspoken rules.

1. The workplace is not fair

We go through life being taught that things should be a certain way – that the world is a fair and just place, and that good should prevail over evil. How many inspirational movies have you seen about individuals overcoming a great injustice? We like to think that this applies to life in general.

But, the truth is that it doesn’t.

There’s a difference between the way things should be and the way things are. The workplace is made up of people, and regardless of good intentions, people don’t make decisions based on what is fair – they make decisions based on what they perceive is going to benefit them at any given time.

And making movies about people who go to work, do a great job, and get fired anyway because the boss doesn’t like them aren’t nearly as inspirational.

Now, that can be a really depressing thought! But here’s the thing: Once you acknowledge this fundamental truth, it changes the way that you navigating the workplace. It means that the personal relationships you develop in the office are just as important to your ultimate success as doing good work.

2. Relationships trump the org chart

There are three types of power and influence in the workplace – role power, expertise power, and relationship power.

  • Role power is where you sit in the organizational chart – who you report to, who are your peers, and who reports to you. You’re influential over the people who report to you purely because you’re the one reasonable for writing their annual review.
  • Expertise power is when you are perceived to be an expert in a particular area. Perceive is the key word here; you can be an expert in something, but if people don’t perceive you to be, then you don’t have expertise power.
  • Relationship power is based on who you have effective working relationships with in the office. Think of it as who likes working with you, and who does not.

Of the three, role power is the weakest type of influence to have in the workplace. Just because someone reports to you, or indirectly ranks lower than you in the org chart, does not mean that they automatically buy into a word you say. You can make the people who report to you complete certain tasks, but that won’t stop them from undermining you behind your back if they don’t really buy into it.

Relationship power, on the other hand, is the strongest type of influence that you can have. It trumps role power every single time.

When you have relationship power, you don’t need rank or position to get things done. Think about the people in your office that the boss likes, and then think about the ones that the boss doesn’t like. It doesn’t matter who those people report to, because the ones that the boss likes are inevitably able to get their way more often, and the ones the boss doesn’t like are constantly fighting an uphill battle.

3. Count the votes, and act accordingly

Decisions don’t get made in meetings. Decisions get made through one-on-one conversations, off-line chats, or talks over drinks after work.

Anytime you’re asked for input on a larger organizational decision, make sure you know who else is involved in the decision, who stands where, and how that decision is going to be made. It’s this context that will help you decide what’s best to do next.

If you are hopelessly outnumbered, or if your boss or another in a leadership position is going to make the decision no matter what, then it’s best to keep your point of view to yourself and go along with the decision. You’re going to win nothing by fighting it and will likely end up damaging yourself politically with people who have power in the organization if you do.

If there’s more room for influence, don’t wait until the meeting. Talk to the people involved one-on-one. Figure out where they stand and why, and then adapt your approach to them.

If you have relationships built, this will be easy. If you don’t, this is a perfect time to start.

4. Pick your battles

Very few of us work in environments where the decisions that are made are truly a matter of life and death. Just because you disagree with those decisions or the direction things are going in does not mean that you’re under an ethical obligation to fight that battle.

Every time you choose to fight, you lose political capital. The political capital you have isn’t finite, but it is fluid. If you use a lot of it to fight the small battles that don’t really matter, you’re going to be on empty if a big battle comes your way, leaving you unable to fight for the things that really matter.

It’s like having an emergency fund – you save up to use it when you need it. You don’t spend it on little things.

Make sure you’re being selective over the battles you choose to fight. Remember that it’s not life and death. Most of the time, if you just let things play out, it will be OK.

5. Always look for the win-win

We all have workplace allies, and workplace enemies. Those aren’t the people you like and the people you don’t. They are the people whose priorities align with yours, and those whose priorities do not.

There a finite amount of resources available in an organization – budget, staff, etc – and chances are you’re going to find yourself in conflict over organizational resources with those whose priorities do not align with yours.

Unless you really have the boss in your back pocket, you’re not going to get 100 percent of the resources that you ask for. That means that compromise with your workplace enemies is inevitable. You’re going to need to give them some of what they want, even if it’s opposed to what you want.

Looking back to point No. 2 (relationships trump org chart),  this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s an opportunity.

Instead of fighting, look for a win-win. Getting 80 percent of what you want and giving your workplace enemy a win is always preferable to getting 100 percent of what you want and pissing people off. If you can find ways to compromise to get the majority of what you want, and give others a win in the process, that is always the best course of action.

This was originally published on Zen Workplace.

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