On Office Politics

The exercise of power is not something that solely belongs to the realm of government. One could argue that nearly all organizations are prone to power games. Daily examples abound: someone took undue credit for your ideas; you were next in line for a promotion, but a colleague with less experience got the position instead; an unexpected project failure leads to widespread scapegoating; another department was able to persuade top executives to increase their funding at the expense of your own; a company merger brings up the possibility of downsizing in your division and colleagues suddenly start acting aggressively.

Why do people get involved in power games? How can we aspire to deal with them? I will attempt to answer these questions in the following article. We start by examining some classical theories of human nature.

Political creatures

For Hobbes, human beings are primarily self-interested. In the absence of strong, central, coercive social control, unregulated competition and conflict will result, and life becomes “nasty, brutish and short.” Let us call this Theory H. The effective Theory H manager enforces tight controls over self-interested and potentially disruptive employees.

We could contrast this with Theory R, based on the works of Rousseau, for whom people have a natural sympathy for their fellow humans, and are as interested in the development of others as they are of themselves. People are only selfish and competitive as a consequence of badly designed social arrangements, leading Rousseau to observe that “man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” The effective Theory R manager seeks to facilitate and support the collaborative development of employees.

For Machiavelli, however, both of these perspectives would be naïve and simplistic. People are not simply either, on the one hand, externally motivated, short-term focused and self-interested or, on the other hand, internally motivated and cooperative.

At times Machiavelli appears close to Hobbes, viewing people as ungrateful, cowardly, greedy, and false. This pessimistic view leads to a straightforward reasoning. If you rely on being loved, there is always a looming risk that people will abandon you when the tides turn and it is in their advantage to change sides. In contrast, if you rely on being feared, people cannot escape the threat that you pose. Fear leads to much more predictable behavior than love.

But unlike Hobbes, Machiavelli’s view of human nature is one of a more fickle, changeable, and contradictory character. People are both “man” and “beast”: they may be inspired to be selfless, cooperative and virtuous or, if scared or left to their own devices, to be petty, narrow-minded, self-centered and vindictive.

The effective Theory M manager seeks to retain and develop loyalty whenever possible, for to do so increases the stability and amenability of his coworkers. He or she should avoid acts that unnecessarily deprive people of their basic dignity or leave them in a state of fear and insecurity, for to do so can stimulate a dangerous level of resentment – and resentment, in turn, breeds conspiracy. Leaders should therefore strive to be loved, but should not naively rely on this.

The next section focuses on a more practical issue, namely how one should react when confronting a powerful figure. This issue is relevant because most of us, in one way or another, will likely feel the weight of someone’s power at some point in our lives.

Crisis and confrontation

Throughout his works, the philosopher Michel de Montaigne steadily reflected on situations where two people, one powerful and the other not, confronted each other and risked everything. Drawing upon historical records and his own personal experiences, he imagined how the events could have unfolded if the people had acted differently.

One such episode was recorded by Arrian: in 332 BC, Alexander the Great laid siege to the city of Gaza. The commander of the fortress, known as Batis, refused to surrender. When Gaza was finally taken, Batis continued to fight alone in a final display of defiance and courage. Alexander initially admired this, but when Batis refused to kneel and kept staring at Alexander with contempt, his fate was sealed. Alexander had Batis’ ankles pierced, then had a rope pulled through his bleeding holes, and Batis was dragged alive by a chariot beneath the walls of the city.

Take another incident, which occurred during Montaigne’s youth: when the French King Henri II imposed a salt-tax on Bordeaux in 1548, the city became the scene of widespread revolt, and violent mobs roamed the streets setting fire to tax collectors’ houses. Then the houses of anyone who looked rich were also set ablaze, and the revolt threatened to turn into a general peasant uprising. The king’s official representative, Tristan de Moneins, locked himself up in the citadel. Crowds gathered outside and howled for him to come out. The poor man thought that he could earn their respect by going out and facing them. But once he saw the angered crowd, he lost his confidence and acted with fear. He was beaten to death.

Would these men have fared better if they had acted differently? Is it wiser to confront and challenge your enemy, or should you gain their favor and mercy by showing submission? Montaigne became obsessed with these questions. According to Sarah Bakewell, there is no straightforward answer.

The problem is that each response brings its own dangers. Defiance might impress the other, but it might also infuriate him. Submission might inspire pity, but it is just as likely to draw your enemy’s contempt, so that he wipes you out with no more thought than he would give to stamping on an insect. As for appealing to his humanity, how can you be sure that he has one?

However many confrontations Montaigne restaged in his mind’s eye, they all seemed to suggest different interpretations and different answers. This is why they fascinated him. In each case the defeated party must make a decision, but so must the victor, for things can go badly wrong for him if he misjudges the situation. If he spares someone who interprets his generosity as weakness, he may be [attacked] in turn. If he is too harsh, he will attract rebellion and revenge.

History shows that people are capable of much generosity toward their fellow human beings; but they are also capable of extreme cruelty. Circumstances play a definitive role in shaping people’s behavior. Depending on the evolving context, people can be driven into all sorts of surprising and unexpected actions.

The fickle and unpredictable nature of men, coupled with changing and uncertain circumstances, means that there are no universal laws for dealing with power games. Each new situation presents its own specificity, and although one can learn much from past examples, political games are often best dealt with through contextually grounded, creative, and adapted solutions.

The politically skilled manager

Machiavelli wrote his opus in the middle of the Italian Wars. But most of us live in relatively stable societies where people expect and rely on mutually cooperative behavior. All advanced economies are found in societies where there is a clear downside for not following cooperative norms, and the cost of non-cooperation often outweighs the potential short-term gains of opportunistic behavior. Some would say that modern social institutions, including the firm, exist because they facilitate collective action.

Yet opportunities for manipulation and deceit still exist. In all organizations, people play games with each other. These games can have small and big consequences. From an organizational standpoint, competitive power games may result in short-term benefits for individuals who win, but if left unchecked, they risk causing serious detriment to the organization in the long run.

The ability to counteract and minimize power games requires several qualities.

The first is empathy. Leaders with political savvy seek to understand the motivations of their entourage. They possess an emotional intelligence that allows them to notice behavior that is indicative of what really goes on underneath the surface. They listen to people, not because they agree, but because they are keen to understand. They know that political games flourish when anxiety is high and when the things that people want are threatened.

The second is self-control. Emotions can lead to impulsive and rash decisions. Power games therefore imply that we play an ‘inner game’ with ourselves to avoid being drawn into drama. Managers must constantly strive not to take things personally and try to minimize their own reactiveness to unexpected circumstances. The word ‘try’ should be emphasized: emotions can be contained, but not suppressed. The goal is not to become an insensitive robot, but to apply personal restraint and display courage when it matters most.

The third is rhetoric. Rhetoric is not only about political speeches. It is, more generally, about using signals and language to achieve an intended effect in the audience. Rhetoric is essential to deal with unexpected events. It allows leaders to reframe situations by communicating in a way that alters people’s ideas and emotional states. In this sense, rhetoric can attenuate the effect of conflicting interests. Effective leaders manipulate to reduce manipulation by others. One could also say that dealing with political games often requires that we play them, to a certain extent.

The fourth is ethics. Good leaders possess a sensitivity to the social context and specific norms that shape people’s beliefs. This allows them to demonstrate strong values that they know people will identify with. Most people appreciate ethical behavior because we have a natural propensity to shun rule-breakers. It is always easier to face political threats when you have a strong ethical track record.

As Matthew Stewart perfectly explains in The Management Myth:

Management involves not just a bundle of techniques for organizing human activity, but also a set of norms governing the ways in which individuals should relate to one another within an organization and within a society. Ask anyone to talk about a great manager they know, and, after some recognition of the individual’s technical skills, the discussion will almost always take place in the language of moral obligation: respect, consideration, fairness.

To put it all in Greek, one could say that management relies on both a techne (meaning ‘skill or craft,’ and the root of our word technology) and an ethos (meaning ‘a pattern of behavior, or character,’ insofar as it discloses bonds with other individuals in a group or society). While techne aims in a general way at the goal of efficiency, ethos is concerned primarily with building trust. Trust is the infrastructure on which the marvels of technology deliver their gains in productivity. Where trust is lacking, efficiency is rarely possible; conversely, inefficiency erodes trust.

To a certain extent, of course, there is a techne associated with ethos – that is to say, a craft or body of techniques that can reliably help build character in the individual and trust among groups. The Greeks had a word for this craft: ethics, which derives from the conjunction of ethos and techne. Those who master ethics, the Greeks added, may lay claim to a kind of practical wisdom called phronesis – distinct from sophia, or theoretical wisdom. One could say that this kind of practical wisdom, or phronesis, is the natural end of management.

Many self-help books about office politics would argue that “whether you are truly virtuous is less important than whether you are perceived to have these traits. From an office political standpoint, virtue has to be analyzed as a form of impression management.”

The problem with this view is that it is narrow-minded. It only says what is best for the individual, and fails to say what is best for the organization. From an organizational standpoint, ethical behavior promotes greater trust and group coherence, which in turn increase organizational efficiency. Relentlessly pursuing self-interest at the expense of others may eventually backfire: a team or a subsidiary in which there is too much infighting may be closed down by company executives because of its continued under-performance. Everyone loses, big time.

Yet no matter how well-designed an organization is, and no matter how much one minimizes office politics, individual behavior cannot be fully controlled and predicted. As such, a minimum of power games remain present in all organizations. Although some maneuvers can be anticipated, many cannot, which is why most of us will be better prepared by cultivating general capacities in empathy, self-control, rhetoric, and ethics. The rest is creativity.

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