how can I navigate office politics when I hate hierarchy and authority?

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It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. A reader writes:

I recently left a long-term job that I was pretty happy in, but had very limited earning potential and no real opportunity for growth. I was offered an amazing opportunity in an industry I’d been trying to break into for a while and just finished my first week there. I really enjoyed my first week, and I really, really want to succeed in this job.

The problem: my previous job was in the grocery industry and was very solidly blue-collar with not a whole lot of “office politics.” And I’m really afraid that I’m not cut out to work in a white collar, more political environment.

I’ve identified what the issue is: ultimately, I really, really struggle with how just inherently and infuriatingly unfair and unequal most office hierarchical setups seem. It really bothers me that higher-ups, larger donors, and board members behave pretty much however they want with impunity — that their rank or donation status entitles them to never be challenged, told they’re wrong, or pushed back against by those below them.

I can’t swallow that just because I might be lower level, I’m not allowed to tell a board member that they’re mistaken about something, or correct a misconception they might have about something I worked on closely and know well. In fact, I’ve been reprimanded in such instances before. An example: once, I corrected a board member who misunderstood something I’d done on an event I was directing. I was chastised for that. When I asked why I wasn’t allowed to assert my knowledge of the project I’d been leading for over six months, I was told firmly that Board Member was “going to be right no matter what,” and all I was allowed to do was apologize — when I hadn’t done anything wrong or made any errors! — and fix it. But why should I have to “fix” something I hadn’t messed up? Just to soothe his ego and keep him happy? Why wasn’t I allowed to speak up for myself and assert how I had not, in fact, erred?

This type of thing just gets so incredibly underneath my skin! I get very caught up on the IT’S NOT FAIR of it and dig in my heels. I feel like acquiescing and deferring to those in power in these ways makes me complicit in reinforcing some really icky power dynamics that play out in really unsettling ways in our world. It seems like professional politics and norms essentially reward a lot of bad behavior, and I struggle navigating that. I always feel like there’s just no justice or recourse for those lower on the pole — the person above you gets to make all the rules, regardless of fairness or the facts, and pushing back against that gets you fired or managed out. But I have such a strong urge to push back regardless, if the “rules” are unfair, demoralizing, or based on wrong information. I truly don’t believe that someone’s position or money entitles them to never be challenged or told they’re wrong, and I hate that this is the norm in many (most?) offices — that “standing” is even a thing that matters.

How do I overcome this? I know I can’t change this – this is the nature of hierarchy, and I need to learn to deal with it and stop getting so frustrated. But I just don’t know how. My issues with authority and hierarchy honestly go back to childhood, and I’m afraid that if I don’t get a grasp on this I’ll never be able to work anywhere with higher earning potential or more prestige. I’ve been able to fake it long enough at the office jobs I had before my last one, but eventually my resentment having to entertain this got the better of me and I ended up leaving. And I still have that little voice in my head that says that if I stop pushing back against authority and hierarchy, I’m essentially “giving up” and “letting them win.” I’m letting the world continue to send really bad, damaging messages that equate someone’s worth to their rank, status and money, and I’m letting those in power think that their sense of entitlement is okay. And that they can always count on winning in the end, and the status quo will persist.

How do I learn to navigate politics and unfairness when it just seems to be so not who I am? Am I doomed to never survive in an office? How do I get over this without feeling like they’ve “won” by getting me to shut up and accept this? Any tips or pointers would be so very appreciated.

Readers, what’s your advice?

how can I navigate office politics when I hate hierarchy and authority? was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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