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Guest Comment: The only way to succeed in finance is by playing nasty office politics - here's what I've seen and learned

If there is ever a poignant piece of advice that university lecturers and textbooks failed to warn me about upon graduating and entering the workforce, it is the fundamentals of office politics. Not long after finding my feet in my new professional environment, I learned pretty quickly that sometimes it's the brownnosing and "who you know, not what you know" ticket that guarantees movement up the corporate ladder.

I have sat back and watched in amusement as co-workers, managers, directors and the like strategize to get themselves promotions and bigger bonuses. They masterfully do whatever it takes to get their own way and they make the game of office politics look like an art form.

My disappearing manager

I once had a manager who disappeared from his desk at 12 p.m. sharp every Friday and would stumble back to the office every few hours smelling of cigarettes and alcohol. He used these bar-hopping benders as quality bonding time with his higher-ups. As everyone would agree, there is a definite correlation between this fraternization and my manager always getting what he wanted.

Another co-worker started off as a lowly analyst in the bank. She was poor in experience but had a killer personality, was super talented at banking and invited us to the wildest parties. She knew exactly how to win over everyone in the office. Two years into her job, she set a precedent by skipping one management level and was catapulted up to become associate director.

Gang rivalries

Perhaps the most memorable display of politics I've witnessed was when my recent manager was looked over for the CFO position she had patiently waited 10 years for. The job was taken by an outsider after she returned from holiday.

In response to what felt like a scathing slap in the face, she made her new boss's life miserable by withholding information, refusing to work in unison, wearing the passive-aggressive front on a daily basis and ultimately garnered the sympathy and backing of the staff. Refusing to be bullied, the new CFO mobilized new recruits and slowly started to take power. It was a sad case of office gang rivalry - more nonsensical and dramatic than West Side Story.

My takeaway

My observations and experience have been isolated to the highly competitive and cut-throat world of finance, where capitalism is the name of the game. Financial services can unfortunately have the ability to seduce employees to do whatever it takes to get more money, more power and more recognition. The advice given to me by a colleague on this unavoidable dilemma is: "Do your work and stay out of it."

But if you have been overlooked for a promotion you were deservingly next in line for (and then you took the moral high ground and didn't cave into playing politics), better luck next time.

Don't hate the player, hate the game.

This article first appeared on our Singapore site.

AUTHORAnonymous candidate Insider Comment
  • Di
    1 December 2011

    Just remember it's not you. It's everywhere, it's incredibly nasty and with the pool shrinking, the politics get dirtier and dirtier. But don't get sucked in too far or you will lose your soul. Do you really want to be as bad as some of the people you come across? They are humans who do think they are good people and rationalize their behavior. Eventually teams begin to underperform big time and are broken up. It's how Wall Street works. Nothing is ever allowed to be stable for too long.

  • fe
    fed up female banker
    30 November 2011

    Couldn't agree more.

    The bigger the bank, the worse it is. The older and more experienced you get, the harder it is to cope with.

  • Jo
    30 November 2011

    Your office situation is amazingly the same as that of my office. I think it would be able to generalize to all finance company all around the world.

    Ultimately, however, I agree with your colleague's idea, "Do your work and stay out of it." The office politics is almost the same as ancient politics. Ruled by pure-survival-of-the-fittest idea with no implicit etiquette, and if you fail, very violent end will be awaiting for you.

    As a risk manager, I always think about risk-return tradeoff. Just doing your job produces much more stable(but not high) return and less risk than playing politics. Unless the situation is "to live or to die" by the office politics, just ignore it and enjoy demise of those politicians when their luck is depleted. Personally I enjoyed quite many times.

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