Last year, Paul Rivers* had what he terms a moment of extreme clarity: It was the solution to a technical issue that had been plaguing his department at a federal research facility for months. Excited at the groundbreaking solution he’d developed, he brought it to Mike Fleming,* the head of his department. Fleming was impressed and in turn presented it to the division director, who loved the idea and implemented it almost immediately. Rivers, however, never received so much as a pat on the back and instead had to force a smile and watch as Fleming was congratulated — and subsequently promoted — for “his” brilliant efforts. Rather than be recognized as a valuable problem-solver, Rivers believes he’s since been targeted by Fleming for upcoming layoffs as a way for Fleming to protect his new position.
Just another film noir plot, where Fleming is tossed in silhouette out of the moonlit window of a high-rise office building to pay for his dastardly deed? Hardly. Instead, it’s an example of what’s actually fairly commonplace in the world of office politics, where getting ahead isn’t just a game — it is the game.
“You’ve got to have a bit of grit or competitiveness to win in business,” says Philip McGee, Ph.D., the coordinator for the master’s of human resource development degree program at Clemson University. Prior to joining the Clemson faculty, McGee spent 17 years working as a management and performance consultant. He says one of the realities of getting ahead in the corporate world is this: Nice guys simply don’t finish first.
When the use of information and power within a corporate environment manifests in a positive way, he says, it’s referred to as skilled networking. However, when the maneuvering involves a personal or professional cost to others, it’s likely to be regarded as political.
Joel Mausner, Ph.D., is a New York-based leadership consultant at Workplace Psychology who has coached numerous corporate, nonprofit, health care and executive clients, including senior and middle management with Morgan Stanley, Price-Waterhouse, IBM, Apple and Deutsche Bank. Office politics, he explains, are a reflection of our society’s power structure in general, which is built upon relationships. This concept simply carries over to the workplace.
“The fact is that you need power in any group of people to get anything done,” says Mausner. “Some people react to the word power by wanting it, while others react by not wanting to engage in power games but to achieve goals and advancement to the best of their own job skills and ability. To this end, relationships are important. People who don’t enjoy building new relationships and/or who are kind of ‘group-phobic’ are at a disadvantage in most effectively advancing their careers. There are people who enjoy functioning in groups and those who don’t. Some people are very comfortable building new friendships but dread group settings, while others thrive in group settings but dread building one-to-one relationships. Those who are good at both are much more adept at negotiating office politics.”
Listen in on any corporate meeting and the odds are good that before it’s over, the term “teamwork” will have been bandied about, probably more than once. In reality, any corporate structure is comprised of multiple individual personalities, all trying to get ahead or to at least keep the jobs they have. While the concept of everyone working together with equal input and equal opportunity for advancement is great in theory, the truth is that hierarchies are essential to corporate organization and are a fact of business — and those who have higher positions or more experience usually wield more power.
Clinical psychologist and former human resources director Judith Locke, founder of Confident and Capable, trains both executives and lower-level corporate employees internationally and throughout Australia on topics related to psychological well-being and resilience in the workplace. Locke’s experience has shown that even when politics are at play, the concepts of hierarchy and teamwork needn’t be exclusive of one another.
“I think you can still have a team even if there are some members who are more senior or more experienced than others,” Locke explains. “While teams often work best with everyone having an equal opportunity to speak up, I think there often will be some members who will have a higher stake in the project or have more useful opinions, and it is understandable if their ideas are particularly important. Having said that, the voice of experience is not the only valuable voice. Often everyone has a useful opinion — I’ve been on some teams where a new or inexperienced member has come up with a very creative solution because they are not using the well-established ways of looking at issues. Of course, new ideas being considered will depend on senior people being willing to listen to them. Unfortunately, I’m increasingly seeing narcissistic traits in senior management, and that really means that no one else is listened to unless they are agreeing. So essentially, teamwork becomes agreement work.”
“Politics,” said Hunter S. Thompson, “is the controlling of your environment.” When things get ugly, a company’s human resources professionals may become involved in negotiating solutions.
“In a healthy organization,” says Stephen Bronack, Ph.D., an associate professor of human resource development at Clemson University, “HR serves the needs of the company by directly serving the needs of the people that work for it. Unfortunately, too many work within organizational cultures that explicitly or implicitly foment an ‘us vs. them’ mindset between people and the companies for which they work. One of the core responsibilities of the HR function is to help remedy those human-to-human challenges that have been identified as having measurable, negative impact on what the company exists to do.”
The proliferation of the virtual office environment has added an interesting twist to the very definition of workplace environment and to the issue of office machinations. When colleagues are spread around the country — or even around the planet — conventional power-play dynamics may no longer apply. Misinterpreting the tone of someone else’s email or pretending your phone is out of order to avoid a conversation doesn’t carry the same drama as a carefully crafted commentary about another’s lackluster presentation, especially one that’s delivered in the midst of a crowded meeting room.
“As teams, groups, divisions and entire companies go virtual, HR professionals are charged with ensuring that the human resource support structures remain in place,” says Bronack. “In some cases, it is a relatively simple shift — e.g., moving forms online rather than on paper. In others, a shift in medium sets in motion an entire rethinking of how to provide the service, at all. For example, identifying and remedying conflict that is occurring between colleagues who work with each other entirely online requires a different set of skills, tools and standards than doing the same among colleagues who share a physical space.”
How politics and power manifest in the workplace, says Mausner, varies according to numerous factors, including personality type. In general, people who are ambitious are inclined to play more politics and be more engaged in the workplace.
“In order to realize your goals,” says Mausner, “you have to play politics. Gossip, for instance, is a form of politics. It can be malicious but it can also be informational, as every organization has an informal set of dynamics going on. And, as we know, information is power. Ultimately, people who play toxic politics are profoundly insecure. They don’t truly believe that their work will speak for itself, so they engage on other levels.”
Sociopathic people, he explains, do this while being fully conscious of their actions. Others who use politics to get ahead are narcissists who surround themselves with people who will only say yes to them — not good from a creative growth point of view. Still other personalities simply aren’t fully conscious of the toll their political maneuvering is taking on co-workers, or have fooled themselves into believing that their behavior is perfectly acceptable.
“This type of individual will tell themselves they’re as good as anyone else in the organization,” explains Mausner, “and that they’re going to play, too. They pick up on the weaknesses of others to get ahead.”
All of this can be exacerbated by an economic climate of downsizing and job loss, which contributes substantially to fears about job security and leads to political decisions that arise from a very real sense of desperation. This can mean a lowering or disintegration of social barriers involving fair play, cooperation and general decency. An atmosphere of all’s fair in love and war can unleash extreme tendencies that may have otherwise been held in check.
Surviving — and even excelling — in a competitive job market needn’t involve malice, propaganda or cruel and unusual behavior, says Karen Selig, clinical director and co-founder of Psychological Services of St. Augustine. Selig, who has more than 30 years of experience counseling, consulting and coaching individuals, families, corporations and family-owned businesses, offers this advice for getting ahead without playing games.
“Out-perform any task you are given to show how valuable you are and that you’re willing to go the extra mile to show you’re motivated and interested in your job. But do this in a productive way, not by bullying others or rolling over them. Positive moves include accessing senior people in the company and determining what it is they really want, then emulating what they’re doing. Use them as mentors, learning from them in order to do the best possible job. Form an opinion and speak up, and be a contributor to making things better.”
Some maneuvering, says Selig, is simply human nature. Whether it escalates to the point of being political depends in large part on the climate of the organization and what’s viewed as acceptable.
“The workplace is a lot like a family,” says Selig, “and the culture sort of goes from the top down. If maneuvering and those kinds of behavior are tolerated and rewarded, then they can become political. If good work gets more attention, then that trickles down instead.”
Office politics, agree these experts, don’t always have to be perceived as damaging or as deceitful manipulation. In the corporate world, networking and relationship-building remain valuable skills.
“I think,” concludes Locke, “that you have to decide what your goals are. If the benefits of moving up outweigh the actions and costs of playing politics, then by all means it can be a useful skill to be able to use your political talent to maneuver well. Having said that, if the politics you have to play means agreeing with your manager all of the time or undertaking actions that hone political skill rather than the work skills you have been employed for, then you are probably losing yourself — your skills, creativity and ability to genuinely contribute. For many people, this cost may not be worth the return.”
* Not the real names of the persons involved
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