Thought you’d escape the tiresome world of office politics by going freelance? No such luck. Contractors and freelancers are just as susceptible to it as permanent folk. So says Drew Davies. Here’s what you can do about it.

For the past five years I’ve been a freelancer and I mostly work from home. You might think that disqualifies me from being able to comment on the ins and outs of office politics, but not so. Being outside a system, can sometimes give you a better perspective on it. And as a consultant, it doesn’t mean you’re automatically ‘apolitical’ – far from it. Arriving on a corporate doorstep, you have to learn the rules, the culture and the etiquette of an organisation fast (such as whose cup you should avoid using – spoiler: the boss’s). Becoming a freelancer has helped me understand how I can change my personal politics for the better, and how to apply it in my work.

Be careful of ‘armouring up’

The reason a lot of people play into office politics is because they’re manoeuvring themselves for a promotion or a pay rise. The thinking can be – if you take more authority, you’ll eventually be rewarded with it. The problem with this is, people don’t always respond to perceived strengths – which can be intimidating – we’re often more attracted by what makes a person human. And that includes weaknesses.

Consultants often fall into the trap of what I call ‘armouring up’ – walking into the room as the infallible expert who knows absolutely everything in their industry. Many believe it’s what’s required of them. Unfortunately, this approach stops people from really listening. The consultants are all monologue and no dialogue, and it’s dialogue that builds relationships. It’s the dialogue that makes you relatable.

(Don’t) Fake it til you make it

When I moved from agency-side to working as a consultant, I didn’t have a website, or business cards. I used a free Gmail account as my email (I still do). I was seriously low-rent, almost belligerently so. A lot of people thought I was crazy, but I wanted to make sure I could actually be a freelancer first before I built up any additional collateral. As a result, I think I worked harder on my ‘product’ because I didn’t have all the bells and whistles to build me up. I still managed to work with large companies (none of them ever said I was too small to be taken seriously), and if they asked me for my card, I took theirs instead.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try and aim for greater heights, but from the websites that are obviously trying to project an image of themselves much bigger than they actually are (it always makes me wonder – what does a client think when they discover the truth?), or the job adverts with the grandiose titles, to the person who always talks up his or her role/responsibility/prospects, fakery gets sniffed out eventually. Honest it does.

You never know who the Gatekeepers are (or will be)

In most organisations, it’s pretty easy to see where the hierarchy lies. As a freelancer, you quickly learn who you’ll be working with, who’s going to be your boss, and who their boss is. What’s not as clear – initially at least – is who in a company has real influence. Influential people aren’t necessarily in senior positions, but their word can carry a lot of clout. As a contractor, it could be easy to disregard more junior people, and only try to please the bigwigs, but I’ve found it’s vital to treat every person in an organisation as if they are your client, giving everyone the respect you would the boss. Where office politics seeks to create a pecking order, ignoring hierarchy (or at least, not weighing your work relationships against it) can actually result in better communication and a greater shared goal. After all, junior people get promotions, colleagues move to other companies, teams shift and change – and by building genuine relationships it’s much more likely you’ll be invited to work on the next project.

People prefer the truth

I’m a people pleaser. I want to get good results – most of us do. Politicians are the worst example of this, with their seemingly endless amounts of spin. When I went freelance, however, I decided to try something radical – I would always tell the truth. If I had to send a report on a Friday, and the results weren’t great that week, I’d say the results weren’t great that week. I wouldn’t sugar coat it, or try and dig out some other data to offset the bad news. The first few times I implemented this thinking I was terrified. But something interesting happened. First up, the clients didn’t fire me. They took it on the chin and waited to see the results the following week (and most often, they got better). More importantly, they learned they could trust me – that I wasn’t going to ‘spin’ the results just to please them. This created a powerful dynamic. My clients didn’t have to use an ‘agency filter’ to get past all the static, so it meant we arrived on the same page faster.

There are still times I’m terrified by an email I’m about to send. Every impulse says to rewrite it, to take out the damning information, but – like people pleasing before it – I’ve found the truth is pretty addictive.

Most of us think that understanding the power dynamics of a workplace are a vital part of surviving (and progressing) in an office. But sometimes even acknowledging office politics can inadvertently make them stronger. If you invest in your relationships and the quality of your communication instead, it will allow you to break through the limitations of rivalry, gossip and one-upmanship. The pay off is that it will not only make you become more effective, it could make you better liked (just don’t use the boss’s cup).

Drew is an SEO consultant who works in digital content and strategy. He does now have a website and you can find it at The New Ethical.

Check out our previous instalment in the Politics of Business series – Don’t make promises you can’t keep – and look out for next week’s feature.