I got an email from an old co-worker the other day:

I was thinking about you and how you are a person I see as not being particularly embroiled in office politics, but also as having a lot of influence and knowing how and where to leverage it. I was curious if you had any words of advice for how you got to that place.

Of course I was happy to hear that I come off this way, and as I thought about how to reply, I found myself writing an essay.

So, about influence, and politics, and etc.

When most people say “office politics”, they seem to mean the “dark side” of relationships at a company. Who gets the boss’s ear? Who “wins” when there are decisions to be made? Who has their ear to the ground?

When people talk about influence and leveraging it, they’re talking about the “light side” of the same thing. Who shapes decisions? Who “makes things happen”? Who shifts behavior, changes the tone of the company?

Office politics and influence function in really similar ways: building relationships with your co-workers, building trust with them, and keeping lines of communication with them open. Most decisions are made before the decision gets made, so being around for those early conversations is where you can exercise leverage.

Some ways that I build relationships with co-workers:

  • private messages when they do something great.
  • always show up for those coffee chats and lunches. This is how you get to know people way outside your group. I have one lined up with our director of finance and a developer who lives in Europe. It's rare to get to talk with them both. If there isn't something like this at a job, it's usually pretty easy to kind-of start one.
  • not-too-frequent 1:1s with people in other teams. I have about 5 of these going, and I do them every 3 weeks. I try to vary the rotation enough from time-to-time. They're hard to drop, though! Be judicious.
  • ask people for help! most people love to feel helpful.

All of these have the advantage of being genuinely nice things to do! They make me feel good, they make my co-worker feel good. The hardest thing about them is making them happen when I have a lot of other stuff to do, or I’m feeling stressed out or distracted. But it really is a part of your job, especially as you grow into a leader in your team, organization, company.

I also work pretty hard to build trust. The best way I know to do this is to do your job as best as you can, and to be transparent with people. When you’re working on something hard, getting people’s opinion when the idea isn’t fully baked does a lot - you can get better ideas, and you show that you’re trusting a co-worker with something delicate, that you need and value their contribution. When things aren’t going smoothly, being straight with your boss

Another way that I build trust and credibility is calling attention to issues that affect “everybody” - but always offering to help make the improvement happen, or even do initial legwork to offer an idea for a solution. This makes it clear that you’re doing more than complaining; that you genuinely want things to improve and you want to be part of that.

Finally, asking for hard feedback, and giving hard feedback are important skills for building trust. The asking is much harder to do, and. I don’t agree with everything in the book - even maybe less than half of it - but Radical Candor helped reshape my ideas about trust. I think the book goes too far, but being able to give criticism honestly and with respect is crucia. Even more important is being ready to receive it without rejecting it or saying “yea, but”. Living with it. Thinking about it. Then accepting the parts that are true and rejecting the parts that are undermining you. If you get sexist feedback, throw it in the garbage and note how much you can trust that person.

So, how is that different from office politics? It’s not just tone, but tone is a big part of it. It’s about genuinely wanting good for other people and for yourself. It’s about character, and about honesty. It’s about genuinely wanting good things for yourself, your co-workers and your company, and striving to make that happen.

Influence is definitely related to competence, but also to prioritization. You’ll be more influential if you’re addressing real needs that people care about - especially your bosses. If they’re good bosses, this is both easy and not morally perilous.

Unfortunately, none of this holds up when you’re surrounded by people of ill will. In that sort of situation, find the other people of good character in your workplace and keep your head down. If you can get out, get out. Don’t spend your energy trying to change people who show you they can’t be trusted.

An aside about conflict:

Every so often, influence doesn’t work this way and you have to stick your neck out. Again, the tone is really important here. In our two big meetings after the layoffs, I directly asked our CEO and my VP some uncomfortable questions about how decisions about who was being laid off and how the layoffs were communicated. I followed up with more direct feedback in private conversations. I think this made a difference in how decisions will happen in the future and in gave my co-workers a better picture of what happened. The way I made those conversations work was by communicating respect for my bosses as people as early as I could in the conversation, and assuming good will by them.

About assuming good will - it’s complicated, but important. The key point is that by assuming good will, you’re able to get more honest and less-defensive communication with someone, even if they’re acting with ill will. That doesn’t mean avoid confrontation, but it means approaching confrontation as though it’s based on either conflicting priorities or mistakes rather than malice. This is a key conflict skill that I wish I’d developed so much sooner! Life would have been better. After the conversation you draw your own conclusions about whether you’ve been dealt with honestly and you can choose your next steps with good information. When good will is real, things will often change for the better as a result of the conflict.

This all sounds very high minded. In writing it, I’ve noticed many ways that I fall short of these ideals. But it feels right as a roadmap.