Surviving the office jungle

It takes more than just qualifications to succeed in today's workplace, writes Meg Carter
Dealing with office politics can prove a headache to even the most experienced managers. Small wonder, then, if new recruits - in particular first-time jobbers - can sometimes buckle under the strain. Knowing what information to communicate and how to best present yourself and your achievements can be as important as many practical qualifications.

A major stumbling block is many new recruits' lack of understanding of how a working environment actually works, according to Roly Cockman, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters. "This is a gap identified by many employers," he says.

"All are testing incoming graduates more on the basis of their competency, asking just how well they will be able to do their job." Most graduates consider preparation for employment as part of their university education, Mr Cockman adds. "We believe, however, a greater emphasis is needed on developing actual job skills."

In spite of this, he adds, there are "pockets of good practice" in a growing number of colleges. At City University, for example, a programme of activities mixes self-marketing skills with general awareness of the job market.

"It starts from the obvious things, like preparation for CVs and job applications, and runs right through to how best to put yourself across in a work environment," City University careers adviser Dagmar Burnett- Godfrey explains. "We also run assessment workshops and re-enact hypothetical workplace situations."

It's about encouraging people to consider the consequences and demands of their actions and attitudes in the workplace, she adds. "It's a major change from college working where one more usually works as an individual.

"They must choose their first employer carefully, because that decision can effect their entire working life - shaping self-confidence, assertiveness, defensive and self-promotional skills," she says. "It's no longer enough to be technically skilful and knowledgeable - how you handle corporate politics and negotiating tactics are becoming just as important."

Jane, a 31-year-old arts graduate, went straight from university into the head office of an international TV company. "They thought it might be nice to have a graduate recruit," she explains. "In fact, they didn't know what to do with me. And worse: I didn't get on with my boss." The head office was tightly run by a domineering chief executive - there was a clear feeling of "everyone watching their backs", she says. "The whole experience shattered my confidence. I just didn't know how to cope." Jane quit after six months.

Understanding the nature of a given work environment is a good first step towards successfully working within a difficult corporate culture. "In certain situations, this can be vital," says Andrew Kakabadse, professor of international management development at Cranfield School of Management.

"Some office cultures are developmental - if you want to do it, do it. Others, however, are very much more divisive." Trying to understand the context is a critical first step, he says: "What are the hidden rules of the game; how do people in that organisation make relationships; what sort of relationships are they?"

Neither economic climate nor type of business are significant factors affecting the degree of politics to be found in a company culture, Prof Kakabadse claims. More relevant is size. "The bigger the organisation, the more likely it is because of blurred lines," he says. "Also, there are many more politics in decentralised, down-sized organisations. Because there are less clear guidelines and career structures, people are constantly in a position of renegotiation - of salary and role."

Another tip for success is keeping a cool and calm head. "Remember, politics is also a way of communicating in a negative environment - it's not necessarily personal. Handling it requires a great deal of maturity," he explains. There is, however, some cause for comfort. "Usually, people do have the skills to cope," Prof Kakabadse says. "But often, they find the situation distasteful and opt out altogether. Keeping an open mind is the best course of action. Otherwise, you could end up a casualty."

Skills required are often those already used at home, with friends or family: how to communicate, how to withhold information until a better time, recognising who really calls the shots and ensuring they are aware of your performance and your achievements. Forewarned, it seems, is forearmed