Secrets of Schmoozing (or Subtle Sucking Up)

Practicing office politics is a little like flirting in high school.

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Back in my high school days, I hated the girls who flirted easily and as a result garnered a steady stream of cute boyfriends and prom dates—the spoils of our teen years. When I entered the corporate world, I felt a similar resentment toward their adult counterparts, the office schmoozers.

You may know the type, those people who spend more time in the boss's office chatting him up than in their own cubicle working, and who circulate at office parties as though hobnobbing were an Olympic sport. In particular, I marveled incredulously at their ability to get the best assignments and quick promotions. Didn't my bosses know butt-kissing when they saw it?

Executive coach Marshall Goldsmith tells me that I'm just one more otherwise capable professional who thinks she shouldn't have to deal with office politics and is convinced she isn't good at schmoozing. This is true. He also tells me I need to get over myself. "We respond well to people who like us," he says. "Most of us don't object to sucking up—we just object to people who are bad at it."

Hmmm. He might just be right.

Conversations with Goldsmith and John Eldred, who teaches a course in organizational dynamics (in other words, office politics) at the University of Pennsylvania, have convinced me that politicking is inevitable in situations where people want to do well for themselves by doing well for the group, which is pretty much what we do at work. And it seems that schmoozing is as essential to office politics as flirting is to high school romance.

Here's a fast summary of everything you need to know about schmoozing to be good at it and still respect (maybe even admire) yourself at the end the workday.

Power is good: "People engage in politics to see how much power they have. And everyone wants more power," Eldred says.

Why not? With power comes influence and the ability to get projects approved, hold sway with your ideas, rally other people around you, and get things done. People who can do those things get the plum assignments, raises, bonuses, job offers, and other good stuff. (For more on raises, click here.)

So is winning over powerful people: If you aren't the person with power, the next best thing is having that person on your side.

You need to be able to get that person to see your point of view and agree with your ideas, Goldsmith says. They're more likely to let themselves be influenced by you if they get along with you, think well of you, and believe that you share their point of view on things important to them. (For more on favoritism, click here.)

Schmoozing garners influence: "We like people who like us," says Goldsmith, "and we respond positively to people who admire us." So think about schmoozing as liking and admiring important people more actively than you have in the past.

If you aren't up for a full round of glad-handing at the next cocktail party (or you don't have cocktail parties), start smaller: Make an effort to get past polite small talk when you're one-on-one with these folks in the elevator, at the water cooler, or walking down the hallway. Convey a common interest, compliment an idea of theirs that you like, or tout a project you're working on that you know they're interested in.

"The real conversation is that one that happens in the hallway, not the three-hour meeting," Eldred says.

Schmoozers are never negative: Being the person who holds back complaints about the tough projects and tries to see management's point of view on unpopular decisions can turn you into the office morale-booster, or at least make you seem very loyal.

People notice what you don't say as well as what you do. So at the very least, "don't make snide comments about the company, and if you think the boss is a jerk, keep it to yourself," Goldsmith says.

Good schmoozers are sincere: If the admiration you offer to your bosses isn't somewhat grounded in truth and your self-touting isn't backed up by good work, people will see through you sooner or later.

You'll be branded as a phony—which is probably worse than being branded a brown-noser—and your credibility will sink like a stone. "Blatant sucking up is embarrassing and condescending to the other person," Goldsmith says. "Subtle suck-ups do much better."