Is your boss psycho?

Office Politics: How to thrive in a world of lying, backstabbing and dirty tricks by Oliver James

AT A recent meeting at Gateways, attended by some of the most thoughtful executives I know, the topic of office politics came up.

There was consensus that companies that are largely free of office politics are the rare exception, despite the toll paid by the company and staff members.

Author James Oliver starts his assessment of office politics with the assertion that it is “absolutely unavoidable that people will find themselves in competition with one another”.

We will inevitably compete for limited resources - a limited bonus pool, the most interesting jobs, status, and much more. It is also to be expected that people will use whatever means they can to advance their interests.

If office politics was nothing more than collegial jostling, it could be easily dismissed. It is not.

There are two major problems with office politics: the first is that a good political player with meagre skills can usurp the position of a truly competent person, with share price denting consequences.

The second is the personal strain of being on the losing end of the competition for scarce resources - despite your diligence and your competence.

This book deals principally with the second problem.

There is strong evidence to suggest that organisations are more political today than they have ever been. James suggests that this is a function of the nature of the contemporary world of work.

When a man’s work was to produce a tangible product, it was easy to assess his contribution. A fine chair, well crafted, would earn more for the company than a poorly crafted one. The quality and value of the work was obvious and clear.

Contrast that with the contemporary world of work. Few people produce a product or service alone, and there are no objective metrics to measure most of the output in the modern organisation.

Did the patron enjoy the evening at the restaurant because the waiter was so pleasant? Was it because of the menu created by the executive chef, or because of the cooking skill of the junior chef who executed the menu?

Or was it because of the maître d’?

In the absence of any objective measure, the one with the best political skill can ensure that he is recognised for the success and not the others. Since competence alone cannot guarantee recognition, political skill fills that vacuum.

The first part of this book deals with the “dark triad”, a dangerous cocktail of personality disorders that is four times as prevalent in people in senior positions as it is in the general public. This is largely because those with these disorders excel at office politics. 

The triad is comprised of psychopaths, Machiavellians and narcissists.

Psychopaths are highly impulsive, thrill-seeking individuals who lack empathy for others. The type of psychopathy that populates the organisational world is not the unstoppable and untreatable predators whose violence is planned, purposeful and emotionless.

Rather, they are psychopaths of the sub-clinical class, more likely to destroy your career because they can, and watch you suffer with no empathy or remorse.

The Machiavellians are typified by the ruthless pursuit of their self-interest, which they execute in a manipulative and calculating fashion.

The third element in the triad is the narcissist. They are commonly vain with a sense of entitlement and a strong desire for dominance which they see as their right, because of their superiority.

Citing new evidence, James explains that people possessing one of these tendencies are liable to possess the others. This is the reason James refers to the group as the “dark triad”.

If you believe that you should never advance your interests at the expense of others, James writes: “I would plead with you to think again. You are most certainly deceiving yourself.”

So how does one survive and thrive in a work environment today?

There are four components to the skill of office politics. The foundational skill is astuteness – the ability to read others, to read the organisation, and to understand yourself.

If you are not able to read the signals of the people around you, your ability to navigate your way is severely restricted.

Self-understanding is critical if you are to get what you want. You cannot act in your best interests, if you don’t know what they are.

The second component is effectiveness, the ability to execute the plan to achieve what want. To be effective you need to know what tactics to use, who to direct them to, when to act and when to wait.

If this sounds artificial it is worth noting that we do this in all situations, almost all the time.

We choose the appropriate language to use in social settings, we adjust the volume of our conversation to the context, and we adhere to the social rituals of the event. In short, we engage in deliberate pretence.

Unsurprisingly, networking is the third component of office political skills. Choosing who to connect with and how is clearly necessary for advancing your cause, building your reputation and moving between jobs.

The final skill is the appearance of sincerity. Clearly, if how you choose to come across is what you really are, so much the better. However, too often your true self and the demands of your context will differ.

If your colleagues lose faith in your honesty and integrity, it will be difficult to progress. The ability to appear sincere is a necessary skill.

If this sounds impure and undesirable, think of how often you have feigned interest so as not to offend another person, or attempted to appear shocked or concerned when you weren’t.

The nature of organisations is not going to morph into an emotional and ethical paradise in our lifetimes.

Knowing how to play the game effectively is both a business and a personal necessity.

Readability:  Light --+-- Serious
Insights:      High +---- Low
Practical:      High ---+- Low

 - Fin24
Have you experienced the darker side of today's work environment? Tell us about it and you could get published.

*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy.

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