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How to Talk About Office Politics with a New Colleague

How to Talk About Office Politics with a New Colleague

How to Talk About Office Politics with a New Colleague

By Karen Dillon // This article was originally posted on hbr.org.


John was just a few days into a new job when he found himself on a 40-minute car ride to an off-site meeting with one of his new colleagues, Chris (names have been changed). As the newbie, John was eager to make a good impression and worried about maintaining chit-chat. Chris, who had been at the company for over a decade, not so much.

For nearly the entire ride, Chris gave John his unfettered opinion of everyone in the office. “I mean everyone — from the secretaries to the top leaders, including telling me that he thought the office manager should be fired,” John recalls now. He remained mostly silent as his colleague held forth, but he silently panicked about what he was hearing.

It wasn’t too long before John figured out that Chris was trying to recruit him to his “camp” in internecine office politics and from that conversation on, John was on guard — not trusting some of his other new colleagues and being careful what he said about the loquacious veteran. In the end, John says, Chris “actually helped me avoid some landmines,” but it was a rattling start to the new position.

I once was in Chris’s shoes and gave a new colleague my off-the-record advice on how to survive a difficult manager. But as soon as I left his office, I immediately worried that I’d been indiscreet, making myself vulnerable in the process. Luckily, my new colleague turned out to be a trustworthy guy and he appreciated my unofficial insight. But having done it myself, I wondered if it ever makes sense to risk indoctrinating a new colleague, even when you have good intentions?

Yes, says Judith White, visiting professor at Tuck School at Dartmouth: in certain situations. “If it’s part of socialization, that’s a helpful thing,” she says, for example when, in the first episode of “Mad Men,” Joan gives new hire Peggy the unofficial guide to succeeding at Sterling Cooper, “she was setting her up to succeed, not just for herself, but for the organization,’’ White explains.

So how do you know if you should bend the new hire’s ear to provide inside scoop on office politics?

First, check your motives. “If somebody is helping you learn the unspoken and unwritten norms of the organization in order for you to function more effectively, that’s a good thing,” says White. But that same instinct to help a colleague can become dangerous if you’re trying to recruit someone to your unofficial culture, like Chris was. Ben Dattner, an executive coach and organizational development consultant, says that if “you’re helping them to be more effective, not stumble into traps or break taboos” then go ahead. “The goal is to make life easier for them.”

Even if your intentions are positive, you also have to respect boundaries and be aware of how you sharing the information reflects on you. Janet (also not her real name) faced a similar situation when she changed jobs well into her career. She wasn’t a “newbie” so she was surprised when a new colleague just gave her an earful of all the personal lives and backstories of their work group. Rather than feeling informed, it made her wary about the new colleague with the loose lips. “I don’t trust this co-worker,” she says now. “ I don’t share much personal information with her because I’m sure if I did, it would be shared with others. I just try to keep things light and friendly.” This didn’t turn out well for Janet or the embittered veteran. John says he felt similar when he was listening to Chris’s diatribe: “I was a brand new guy and I kept wondering, ‘Why is he telling me all this? He doesn’t even know me.’” Keep in mind that whatever you say to your new colleague will reflect on you, and perhaps negatively.

That’s not to say that sharing gossip is always destructive to a work environment. In fact, almost everyone does it in one form or another, according to Giuseppe Labianca, a professor of Management at University of Kentucky. “Gossip can be very helpful to people in organizations, especially when the flow of information from the top gets choked off, as often happens when companies are in crisis or undergoing change,” Labianca said about his research in a 2010 article, “It’s Not ‘Unprofessional’ to Gossip at Work.” “If a few people know what’s really going on, gossip becomes the means of spreading that information to everyone else. What’s more, research shows that gossip often reduces individuals’ anxiety and helps them cope with uncertainty.”

Still Labianca warns that being known as a gossiper can hurt your career. ‘’We know that managers consider gossip to be subversive. And it is.’’ Not only do managers tend to assume that any gossip is negative, he said, they also tend to give employees known to gossip lower ratings.

Lastly, consider whether what you say could come back and bite you later. “If it’s information that everybody who works there already knows, that’s fine. But if it’s sharing privileged information, that’s not a good thing,” says White. You don’t know what your new colleague might tell others, exposing you and possibly damaging your reputation. Dattner suggests a simple rule to follow when walking the line between helping out your new colleague and undermining you both: “Do it as if everybody was listening.”

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