Quick preface: this article assumes you’re coming from a place of social awareness and aptitude, professional or romantic capability (as the case may be), and at least enough confidence to tell it like it is and not be shy about doing so. If yes, you’ll love this piece; if not, focus on elevating your social, professional, and/or romantic competence first, then circle back to this, because you genuinely need to be the one with the social skills upper hand to pull this off.
We’ve had a number of people on here ask about office politics: how do you deal with it? Indeed, office politics can be a quagmire... you get stuck in it, and it can feel almost impossible to get out. All your attempts to are like wading through waist-deep mud.
But the solutions to office politics are not exclusive to the world of checkout counters, clock-in devices, and cubicles. Rather, by and large, they’re the same exact things you’ll use for dealing with any passive-aggressive situation.
Because, just like other forms of passive-aggression, most aspects of office politics only work if you insist on playing by their rules... instead of you getting them playing by yours.
Office politics and passive-aggression are tools of midrange individuals in any given relationship or circle of people who use a “grind it out” strategy to gradually ladder-climb up over other midrange people, and keep those they’ve gained a rung on underfoot.
They’re effective with most folks because most folks don’t have the wherewithal to challenge the users of office politics directly; instead, they try to play the game back, and usually end up losing.
That’s because office politics and passive-aggression are not games you win playing from behind. To win them, you must start from reasonably around the same level, or above. They strongly favor the person with the lead, making it easier and easier for people with leads in them to pull away, and harder and harder for people lagging behind to ever catch back up again.
Office Politics vs. Passive-Aggression
When we use the term “passive-aggressive”, what we usually mean is one person’s treatment of another. Passive-aggression is polite words with insulting, cynical, or threatening undertones; that’s things like a girlfriend telling you:
“No, it’s fine; you should totally go out with your friends. I’ll just stay home by myself,” in an annoyed tone of voice
“Only seeing you once a week is fine. It’s not like I need a real relationship or anything”
“I can’t sleep over? Figures. It was stupid of me to think this was going somewhere”
When someone is passive-aggressive toward you, it feels grating and frustrating, although you won’t always know why. You’ll just know that you really wish she’d have just said what was on her mind, instead of being opaque like she is. Your reaction will range anywhere from panic to an eye roll, depending on how seriously you take the unspoken threat and how emotionally dependent you are on the girlfriend (or other person) wielding passive-aggression your way.
Office politics (or clique politics in school) works exactly the same way, only at group level. Your officemate has it in with the boss; you’re left out of important meetings, or marginalized, while he repeatedly gets chances to show his finer qualities. You’re the last to hear about important news, and the first to be asked to go run pointless errands. You get the feeling that when you’re not there, everyone else is probably talking among themselves about how much longer you’re going to last at the company.
This is nothing but passive-aggression at the group level. Again, the group is telling you something, without saying it outright:
- “You don’t get it”
- “You aren’t that useful”
- “You’re a drag on us”
This is more often communicated by exclusion – either not including you outright, or by ignoring or sidelining you in group situations. There can also be an active element, in tasking you in ways that you end up doing lower value work, or work that keeps you away from the core group and core activities.
That’s bad when your coworkers are doing it... and even worse when the boss is a part of it, too.
You Won’t Win Fighting Uphill
There are instances of battles being won in history by the side fighting uphill, but even in these “victories”, the side fighting uphill normally takes far heavier losses than the side fighting down. That’s why the advice of “seize the high ground” is so ubiquitous throughout the military strategies of every army the world over; when you’re fighting, it’s much better to be the one fighting down than it is the one fighting up.
When it comes to passive-aggression and office politics, the same is true here. The individual who’s taken the initiative and is fighting from the high ground position – that is, the person who’s initiated passive-aggression, or one of those in the office, school, or other clique excluding you – doesn’t really need to do anything other than maintain what he’s doing to keep building his lead over you in the environment.
You, on the other hand, need to start fighting back... or you’ll only lose ground. Yet, you’re going to most naturally feel as if you have to fight back the way your opponent is fighting back – you’ll try to win by playing on his terrain.
The problem with this is that those who use passive-aggression and/or office politics against you are usually experienced at using these things, and they know how to use them and make them work. You will try to fight back... but you will usually fail at this.
For instance, if you notice that several of your officemates have closed you out of the most rewarding projects, you might try to start meeting with your boss separately, impressing him, and asking him if he has other projects for you to work on... then not filling in your officemates on these projects until they notice you presenting on them when you’re already entrenched. Or, you try to find out what they’re doing, then secretly work on your own superior solution to how they’re handling a given problem, and present yours as an alternative at a critical moment (or consult with the boss behind their backs).
There’re several problems inherent in all this though:
- It’s slow (it takes time to do)
- It’s far from guaranteed (your efforts will often fail)
- It only promotes an escalation of office politics between you and
Not only does it not solve the problem, but it actually makes things worse, by forcing your opponents to take you more seriously as a competitor... and really pull out their A-game.
Finally, it violates Niccolò Machiavelli’s instruction on dealing with enemies:
“Men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they will readily avenge themselves of slight grievances, but not more serious ones. Therefore the injury that is done to a man ought to be of a kind that cannot incur revenge.”
Playing “be the better sneak” neither treats those opposing you well, nor does it crush them – it merely stings them, and encourages them to come back at you harder, with everything they have in their back pockets.
You don’t want to play “be the better sneak” with others using passive-aggression and office politics. That’s playing their game – and chances are, they’re better at their game than you are at it.
However, there’s one thing that every sneak hates, and I think you already know what it is: having the spotlight shown on his sneaking behavior. A player in office politics is of two minds: one is the sneaking he does to undermine opponents, yes, but the other is geared toward keeping an honest, trustworthy, dependable public face.
And if you can call him out on his sneaking appropriately, you force him to reconcile one face with the other – ultimately, by forcing him to conform his behavior to the face he wants to keep.
Forcing Behavioral Change
Most people don’t call out others on their behavior. That seems to me to be for a couple of different reasons:
They fear having their call outs be refuted, thus looking like fools
They fear that others will in turn call them out on their behavior
Both of these fears are based around a fear of not knowing what to do if one is challenged back; that is, not knowing how to answer social challenges. If either fear sounds familiar to you, read these articles and start brushing up on your challenge-handling:
... anyway, that’s why the preface on this article advised you that this is going to show you how to deal with office politics and passive-aggressive behavior provided that you’ve already arrived at a relatively solid level of social aptitude and confidence.
Assuming you’re comfortable enough that you can deal with anything anyone calls you out on in turn, and that you won’t miss a beat if someone tries to shrug off something you call him out on, you’ll find this immensely simple to do. It goes like this:
- Person does something sneaky / passive-aggressive to climb over you
- You point it out in a self-deprecating, but very clear and authoritative, way
- The other person scrambles to defend himself or deny it
- You tell him to relax, while not backing off your accusation an inch
- He’ll bow out of the conversation, and you’ll smile and let him, but now he’s on alert, and he knows he’s going to get called out if he tries it again
It’s exactly like punching the bully in the nose when he tries to rough you up. You haven’t knocked him out of the game; you’ve just shown him you aren’t a pushover and he’s better off seeking weaker prey.
Here’s an example of dealing with a more or less open challenge:
[you’re a new manager at an auto shop, and the veteran staff is constantly challenging your authority and attempting to undermine and discredit you]
You: Hey guys, we’ve got a few more cars to come in, and we’ve got to do these before the other ones. The customers are here and waiting; the other ones aren’t coming back for another hour or two.
Worker: Oh, come on, man! That one’s been hanging on the rack forever! Tell those new people they’ll just have to wait, and let me do my job.
You: Hey, Mike, I know you don’t like me and you think I’m a putz. That is what it is. But these people are here and they’re waiting and we can get them in and give them great service, and still have plenty of time to finish all the cars before the last owners come back.
Worker: Look [walking up closer and talking more intimately] – it’s not that I don’t like you, I just think you’re an agent of the district manager, down here to clean us up!
You: I’ve talked to the district manager like twice. I’m just here to do the best job I can do, that’s it.
In this example (from a job I had just after I’d turned 19, managing men over twice my age and with a lot more work experience), calling out what I saw as the core point of tension between the two of us prompted the leader of the “resistance movement” against me to backpedal and say he didn’t like me (people usually don’t want to admit to not liking people they work with day in and day out, when prompted to openly), and then to clarify exactly what the core problem he had with me was – which I then was able to address. Things smoothed out a lot between us after this, and the worker (who really more or less held all but equal authority with the actual store manager of the location for who was in charge of the shop) treated me significantly more respectfully after this.
One note on doing the “I know you don’t like me” line – don’t do the “I know you don’t like me. I don’t like you either” bit; you just put people on the defensive. What you want is being disarmingly vulnerable. Telling them you know they don’t like you, then neither trying to defend yourself nor lashing out at them in return, but instead focusing solely on handling the business that you’re both there to handle, makes almost everyone you can possibly work with respect you more, because it shows you have yourself together and are both aware of their disdain for you... and unmoved by it. Massive respect increase (before they see this, they will usually assume that either you aren’t aware, or are hiding your bitterness or hurt feelings about it; after they see this, you’re clearly both aware and relaxed; very powerful).
Here’s another example of using this, in more subtle office politics:
[you’re working on a joint project with a single coworker, where your boss hands tasks to both of you at once and leaves it to the two of you to sort out how to complete them. You do most of the work, but the coworker rushes to be the first to send emails to the boss, and to launch into describing all the work that was accomplished in person. As a result, the boss soon comes to view him as the point man, leader, and rainmaker, and begins directing all communication to him while ignoring you]
You: [to coworker] Hey man, I know you’re excited to report to Captain and all, but the way you’re shooting out emails like crazy and taking over all the talking is making me look like I’m sitting around twiddling my thumbs while you do all the work. We need to figure out a more balanced way to present our results.
Him: Haha, yeah, I didn’t even think about that! [outright lie] I guess you could send some of the emails?
You: How about this: why don’t we figure out what parts each of us will present when we go talk to Captain, and if we have to email stuff to him we’ll just take turns mailing it to him. That way we don’t have to get stupid and start figuring out exactly who did what and we each report our own stuff, because that’s just inefficient, but we’ll both be getting some face time and not be looking like you and your sidekick.
Him: Haha, okay, we can try that.
In this case, I’d called out sneaky behavior my coworker thought I wasn’t picking up on or wasn’t going to say anything about, and made him (very obviously) uncomfortable. The result was that he became a lot more respectful and backed off his power grab and ladder climbing for a bit... though he went back to doing it again within 5 or 6 weeks.
At that point, I could’ve called him out again, and in other office
politics situations, I’ve just repeatedly called people out until they
shaped up for good, and that was fine. But in this case, my coworker
was particularly tenacious and power hungry, and I had another trick up
my sleeve I decided to try out instead... more on that in a moment.
Before we get to that though, let’s talk about clearing the air.
Clearing the Air
Clearing the air is probably the most important things to do with any politically dicey, passive-aggressive scenario. People start sneaking around hoping you won’t see them because they want the upper hand on you, but the thing to realize is that the reason they’re doing this in the first place is because they see you as an adversary, rather than an ally.
Occasionally, you’ll find yourself up against someone who’s very low empathy and invariably views everyone as an adversary to be overcome, and no matter how much air clearing you do, you will always be this person’s opponent (though if you clear the air thoroughly and often enough, you will at least become a respected opponent, receiving better treatment and less sneaking than those opponents too oblivious or too fearful to call the individual out). Usually though, clearing the air is an effective way of getting on the same page with people, airing out your differences, and ending adversity.
It’s a very useful thing to do.
In a romantic relationship, that looks like this:
Girl: Only seeing you once a week is fine. It’s not like I need a real relationship or anything.
You: Okay, we need to talk about this.
Girl: Nope; it’s fine. I don’t want to talk about it.
[this is the point where most guys go, “Okay, well if you don’t want to talk about it, I guess that’s all right,” and then they set themselves for a much bigger emotional tsunami a few days or weeks later]
You: Noooo – this is obviously something important to you, otherwise you wouldn’t be all passive-aggressive pouting around me about it.
Girl: I don’t want to talk about it.
You: Yes you do; you’re the one who brought it up. So talk.
Girl: No, it’s fine.
You: No, it isn’t fine. You’re freaking out because you think this isn’t a “real relationship” because we see each other once a week instead of twice a week or three times a week or every two hours or some undefined amount of time. So do you want to tell me what a “real relationship” is, why what we have doesn’t qualify, and why that’s important to you?
At this point, she’ll tell you what a “real relationship” is, how she defines it, and why she’s upset that you aren’t in it. You can then either tell her you can see her more often (if you like her and want to get more serious with her), or explain to her why you aren’t able to see her more often, and that if she needs to move on you’ll understand, though you certainly love spending time with her and would hope that she wouldn’t.
In office politics or other cliquey situations, you need to call someone out after they do something that clearly shows their adversity toward you and ask them what specifically it is they don’t like about you, why this bothers them, and how the two of you can get on the same page since you have to be around each other for work anyway.
The rules of clearing the air with someone are as follows:
Call them out after a passive-aggressive action. You must do this right when they’ve committed a slight against you, because otherwise you give them room to wiggle out of and tell you you’re imagining things. Sometimes people aren’t even completely conscious of what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. When you time your call out to follow right after they’ve just been passive-aggressive against you or tried to ladder-climb over you, even if they weren’t aware of it before, they become instantly aware of it now, and can address it with you if properly engaged.
Don’t judge, and don’t be sour grapes. Don’t be upset that people don’t like you. Being upset about it doesn’t make them like you more. Being nonchalant about it does. You must be nonjudgmental about their dislike for you, and you must be neutral about it. Don’t be upset or emotional; just ask them why they don’t like you conversationally. Don’t try to “get even” and tell them you don’t like them either; that’s just confirming their suspicion that you are their adversary, and not opening up an air-clearing dialogue instead.
Don’t let them squirm out of answering the allegation. Most people, when called out, will act surprised and tell you they don’t know what you’re talking about, or that they don’t want to talk about it. Don’t let them get away; nail them down on the issue! Insist that they talk about it. If they say they don’t know what you’re talking about, get very specific about what they just did and the effect it had on you and what you infer about their feelings toward you, and ask them why they feel that way and how you can resolve it.
Focus on getting to resolution then and there. Resolve, resolve, resolve. Don’t leave anything hanging. Focus on getting the issue resolved, then and there. Much of the time this means leaving with action items for one or both of you. Other times this means the other person telling you why he’s acting a certain way toward you, and you clearing up the misconception he had about you that led him to act that way. Him opening up and telling you why he’s behaving a certain way toward you is a big concession; it forces him to go quite vulnerable. So you’re fine here conceding to offer an explanation, or even to change a bit if he points out something you hadn’t realized you were doing that is hurtful or inconsiderate.
Clearing the air is wonderful for both of you, because it frees you from having to deal with passive-aggressive behavior, which is mentally taxing when you’re on the receiving end (endlessly having to decipher the “meaning behind a meaning” of someone’s moderately veiled complaints and attacks), and is mentally taxing when you’re on the giving end (feeling stuck and unable to get exactly what you want with someone else; trying to sneak around and eke out one small gain after another).
Occasionally, you will find yourself up against some bad apples who just won’t correct their behavior toward you, even after you’ve repeatedly cleared the air, fixed anything on your end they’ve identified as causing them to act that way, and secured promises from them of behaving better in the future.
In that case, you may not be able to turn adversaries into allies, and instead of taking the well treated path that Machiavelli references, you must crush them instead.
Crushing Passive-Aggressive People
The passive-aggressive individual’s Achilles heel is his allergic reaction to being called out on his sneaking behavior, and attempts to undermine you in a below-the-radar way.
The primary way you use this against him is calling him out; done eloquently, he isn’t expecting it and can’t defend against it – he simply has to admit that, yes, that’s what he’s been doing, and then backpedal and explain why he’s been doing it and work with you to achieve resolution.
Occasionally, that primary way turns out not to work with some people; they’ll promise resolution, act like everything’s fine, then go right back to doing what they were doing before after a short time has passed. You can keep calling them out, but usually they get used to this, start ignoring it, and then feel even bolder around you; you can’t stop them.
This is with the people who don’t have a genuine grievance with you, but instead view you merely as a rung to be climbed in order to get to where they’re trying to get to politics-wise.
Where this is the case, you must respond by utterly crushing the morale of your adversary. You do this by making him seem completely inept, and you seem the talent.
If you’re thinking, “Gee, that sounds hard,” the good news is that the people who are inveterate ladder climbers also happen to be better at ladder climbing than they are at anything else. They’re good at creating appearances, but not so good at actually getting the job done and executing at a high level. If you’re even average at your job, you’re probably better than they are.
Further, they spend most of their time not doing the work but rather learning how to TALK about doing the work. They want to present; others do the work, they present the work, and take the credit.
So, what you do is this:
You pass them pieces of work that are simple, and explain simple parts of the work to them. This keeps them feeling involved, and like they know what they need to know about your end of the business
Meanwhile, you play the hard stuff close to your chest – you don’t talk about it with them, don’t tell them how it works, and don’t even act like it exists if they don’t otherwise know about it
When it’s presentation time, you let them do their usual spotlight-grabbing flourishes. But you interject to point out the things they get wrong, or, at times, to outright correct them – in a very non-challenging, “parent correcting the overeager child” way: “Dan’s close, but I just want to clarify a few small pieces of this. What’s actually happening when X happens is that Y thing...”
When questions are asked, you let them try to answer if they care to, and fill in the blanks if they can’t
The end result of this is that you come to have the appearance of being the guy who really knows what’s going on. The other guy is all show and bluster; once he’s looking dumbstruck and at a loss for answers, you step in and calmly and confidently address all remaining questions.
The floor of his knowledge and effectiveness in the job has been exposed; meanwhile, yours appears, for all intents and purposes, to be limitless.
In this way, I dealt with that workplace ladder-climbing coworker mentioned above in such a way that the Navy Captain we reported to, who’d previously taken to solely addressing him in our three-person meetings and entirely ignoring me, began to address solely me when discussing any important or detailed work, while turning to my coworker only to give light assignments or simple tasks to.
I became the go-to guy for all the intellectual heavy lifting, hard answers, and tough assignments, and I rapidly commanded most of the respect in our two-man team. I just let the other guy dig his own grave, because he didn’t know the real guts of the system we were putting together... but I did. And after all his talk, he couldn’t answer deep questions about it, or would tell our superior that we’d have to get back to him on something, only for me to interject and say no, actually, we’ve already got those numbers – here they are.
All but the dumbest bosses love their most effective people the
most; and if you have a boss who doesn’t appreciate you being one of
his heavy-hitters, you probably need to change projects, divisions, or
One note: bear in mind Machiavelli’s warning, and when you crush someone like this, make sure you don’t ever give them an opening to climb back. You may start feeling bad for the guy after a while, seeing him deprived of his former glory as spotlight stealer, but don’t be fooled; if you take pity on him and start including him more, he’ll go right back to taking all the credit again, and you’ll start looking like someone who’s just along for the ride instead of someone contributing important things to the workplace instead.
It’s unfortunate, but when you’re working with people who will ladder-climb you and don’t respond to air-clearing attempts, you’ve just got to keep your most important work secret and only explain it in front of the boss or bosses, while feeding them lower level work that will make them feel like you’re working closely with them, so they’re constantly off the trail. Eventually, they’ll realize you aren’t telling them everything, but there’s not really anything they can do about it except wait to hear about it at the same time as the boss.
Office Politics / Passive-Aggressive Recap
We covered a lot here, but it’s all actually pretty straightforward:
Office politics and passive-aggression are related (and often one and the same) inasmuch as both entail sneaking around, hiding one’s actual desires, and trying to pressure others into doing what we want rather than commanding them to outright
People using these “guerilla tactics” against you are betting on you not noticing or, if you notice, not having the balls or the skill to call them out on it socially
If you do call them out on passive-aggression and/or office politics, they’re forced to backtrack in order to reconcile sneaky actions with public face (which is almost always as someone honest and forthright)
When calling someone out, remember to mind our rules on this:
- Call them out after a passive-aggressive action
- Don’t judge, and don’t be sour grapes
- Don’t let them squirm out of answering the allegation
- Focus on getting to resolution then and there
Occasionally, you’ll run into people that no amount of calling out and correcting or resolving to correct behavior fixes; they just keep sniping at you from the underbrush regardless. In this case, you need to crush them; you do this by:
- Feeding them simple, sometimes irrelevant information
- Keeping your important information hidden away
- Revealing important information only in front of authority figures
- Letting politics-players show their knowledge floor before you jump in
- Branding yourself as the guy with all the answers, and deep
With people you crush, remember not to “have mercy” later and decide to ease up on them; this is all they need to come back, pick up where they left off, and make you look and feel like a fool all over again
And that’s how you win at politics with experts at pulling the political strings.
Interestingly enough, you can almost always either get these cats over on your side, as friends and allies, or you can just step back, stop giving them the information they need to make you look irrelevant, and let them hang themselves with their own puppet strings instead.
Just bear in mind, you always want to try calling people out and clearing the air before you go scorched earth on them, trying to leave them nothing they can use to elevate their positions anymore. It’s easier, it’s less stressful over the long-term, and life’s just better and more fun with a larger number of allies who respect the hell out of you on your side because you’re one of the few people they’ve ever met with balls big enough to call them on their shenanigans and not be moved by them.