Navigating office politics

Peter Boumgarden, professor of practice, strategy and organization in Olin Business School, talks about how to thrive at work

According to Peter Boumgarden of Olin Business School, mastering office politics requires navigating the official and unofficial org chart of a workplace. Illustration by Leah Kurth

Leadership, at its core, is about influence. In Olin Business School’s popular MBA elective “Power and Politics,” Peter Boumgarden, PhD ’10, professor of practice, strategy and organizations, teaches students how to navigate leadership positions, which necessitates building power and gaining influence in the workplace.

“One under appreciated and important part of this leading through influence is learning how to read the network of an organization,” Boumgarden says. You have the formal org chart, but there is an informal one as well of friendships, longtime work relationships, frenemies and drinking buddies. “More often than not, a lot of the important communication and information flows not through the formaI chart but through the informal chart,” Boumgarden says. “Cultivating an ability to tease out those networks can really shape the way one plans for an influence encounter.”

To get things done, you should “quickly and accurately diagnose the company behind the company, the true organization chart behind the formal relationships,” Boumgarden says.

Relatedly, don’t ignore co-workers and subordinates to focus on impressing the boss. “Your reputation spreads just as easily through how you treat people who are junior to you,” Boumgarden says. “You need to have as much of a lateral strategy for making a good impression, looking sideways or downward, as an upward strategy.”

One of the most important aspects of navigating office politics though is
“finding a place where you fit from a competence and value standpoint.” In such a company, you are often more able to be an authentic version of yourself.

Once you find this initial fit, it is important to get off to a fast start. Jump on a project that lets you demonstrate credibility quickly. Such early wins can cultivate momentum and give you opportunities for unique stretch projects that allow you to distinguish yourself.

“l encourage students to find things that are on the edge of what they feel they can actually do and then knock them out of the park, so they don’t get caught in an environment where they’re doing the same type of thing over and over,” Boumgarden says. But it is important to make sure your ego doesn’t trick you into taking on something that might actually require more knowledge or development.

Nervous that Boumgarden is churning out Machiavellian MBAs? Don’t worry.

“Throughout the course,” he says, “we’re seeing tactics that get things done, that make the world a better place.”

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