Power struggles

first_img Comments are closed. Power strugglesOn 30 Jan 2001 in Personnel Today Related posts:No related photos. Officepolitics has a bad name but you ignore it at your peril. Jane Lewis reports onthe latest thinking on how to play the power game and winThepublic appetite for power and politics has never looked more jaded. Forgetabout all that brouhaha in Florida ñ the real story of the US presidentialelection was that half the country’s electorate failed to show up at all. Andthe situation in the UK is little better if the low turnouts atlast autumn’s parliamentary by-elections are anything to go by.Nodoubt psephologists (those who scientifically study elections) are alreadypouring over the complex social and political causes of such wide spread voterapathy. But some commentators believe the issue is more straight forward. Theyargue that political impulse in individuals has not ceased or diminished ñ ithas just been redirected into new channels. “Peopleare only interested in things in which they feel involved and over which theyfeel they could exert influence,” says organisational psychologist ColinSelby of Selby Millsmith, and for many people that means the work place.Ownup to powerIthas become a truism that business is the new politics on a macro scale ñ youonly have to look at the power wielded by multinational companies, often at theexpense of nation states. “The economic power of some organisations is sohuge that they’re punching well above their weight in political issues. There’sa sense that big national and multinational players now have more power thangovernments,” says Linda Holbeche, director of research at Roffey Park. Butshe also observes a similar shift in energy at the micro level. “Peopleare looking much more at personal strategies of power, and how they might usethese to further their own careers,” she says.Cuethe arrival of a new breed of executive coach dedicated to persuadingindividuals to think more deeply about their political role withinorganisations, as well as offering practical advice about how to boost their”personal power-base” and practice “intra-psychic politics”.The terminology might sound as if it’s come straight out of a Thunderbirdsepisode, but the intent behind it is serious. As Dr Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge, anemerging expert in the field, points out, “A lot of people don’t realisehow important it is to own up to power.”Sheclaims she only stumbled on the issue by chance. “I’m a macro person ñ myusual role is to troubleshoot big business change at a broad level.” Butshe couldn’t help wondering why some clearly gifted business practitionersremained stuck in a particular job, while others consistently achieved dazzlingheights. In almost every case it was a kind of political awareness that hadmade the difference. Those who reached the top of organisations had done so by”effective use of socialised power”. They had networked, built teams,and actively sought to make a personal impact on the organisation. Theconclusion she reached was that in business, as in life, you don’t get whatyou’re worth so much as what you can negotiate.NegativeconnotationsAcommon trait among those disappointed with their careers was the assumptionthat ability, performance and self-belief would speak for themselves, thatvirtue would be rewarded without any further effort on their part. Thisattitude of ‘I’m so good, why should I bother to tell anyone?’ is a cardinalsin, she says, and claims to have achieved “fantastic results” simplyby getting people to learn to use power effectively.Humanbeings are essentially political animals. But Dr Cheung-Judge argues that bythe time many people get to the work place their desire to practice politicshas frequently faded. Some people don’t believe they have any power, othersdon’t want to play the power game, either because they’ve had a bad experience,or because they perceive the use of power per se to be unethical. “Powertends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” wrote the firstBaron Acton in the 1880s. He might have been forgotten, but his epithet isstill firmly wedged in public consciousness and sums up a common attitude.Eventhe phrase “office politics” is loaded with negative connotations,implying a struggle for personal power at the expense of wider corporate aims.As such, it has become the most widely cited informal explanation for anyfailed project or botched initiative within companies. No wonder so manywell-meaning employees are keen to distance themselves from the concept, if notthe actual reality of politics. According to a survey conducted by the careersweb site MMXI, most don’t believe that the practice will do them any good ñonly 39 of the 1,000 people canvassed cited office politics as an importanttool for reaching the top. Yet some 420 of these believed luck plays animportant part.Theexperts agree that the biggest political mistake of all is to assume thatorganisational politics doesn’t exist. “Conflict and power are inherent inorganisations. As a manager you either use power and politics effectively, oryou’re subjected to them,” claims Cheung-Judge. “You have to bepolitical to protect yourself,” adds Andrew DuBrin, professor ofmanagement at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.DuBrin’scontention that, “there are still a lot of devious people in organisationsand people that are operating out of self-interest,” just about sums upthis new approach to office politics, which could be styled the Good Guys FightBack school of thought. New breed trainers are urging recruits to seethemselves as virtuous power-brokers, building up influence and wielding powerethically for the good of the organisation, as well as for their ownadvancement. Thetheory, at least, is that what goes around comes around: if you dish the dirton a colleague, or betray your boss to superiors, your actions are likely torebound on you. A classic example of the theory in practice was on our screenslast summer, according to Brian Baxter of organisational psychologists Kiddy& Partners. “It’s the Nasty Nick syndrome ñ but that kind of personisn’t going to survive.””Ifyou don’t have character ethics any power play is not sustainable, becausepeople see through you,” concurs Cheung-Judge. “Without characterethics, personality politics will be hollow.”InstinctiveawarenessButis it equally hollow to assume that something as intangible as political nouscan be encapsulated into a series of axiomatic do’s and don’ts about how tobehave at work? Certainly some of the advice coming out of the US appearsstrangely clumsy, if not naive. Among the more extreme strictures areinstructions “to avoid all contact, both social or formal, withunproductive individuals,” and “to deploy constructive gossip”. Onthe question of what exactly constitutes constructive gossip, the experts getinto a bit of a muddle. “Good gossip would be sharing information that’s alittle bit titillating, but wouldn’t damage anyone,” explains Dubrin.”Something interesting like, ‘I’ve heard Sheila is in line for a mammothpromotion to another division,’ not, ‘She’s pregnant and she doesn’t know whothe father is’”. Well, now we know.There’sa very real danger of losing sight of the main point amid all the guff which ishow you go about incorporating your own political instincts and self-knowledgeinto a viable career strategy. Consultant John Eldred of Transition OneAssociates is responsible for coining the phrase “intra-psychicpolitics” to describe his approach to the issue. But the definition ofwhat this means in practice is far more user-friendly. “It involvesknowing who you are, what your goals are and how to handle yourself in themidst of conflict. That kind of knowledge helps you decide which battles areworth fighting.”Inmany ways the process is about identifying and formalising what you alreadyknow and probably practice intuitively. If you know there is someone hostile toyou in your department, it comes as second nature to take steps to trump theirinfluence by allying with a third party. A good question to ask is: who will bemy champion if things get difficult? Eldred takes the matter further byencouraging students to create two lists, the first entitled: what do I need toget on? The second: what can I help others with?Buildyour profileCheung-Judge’sapproach is similar ñ she encourages students “to start tradingfavours” with peers. She claims the notion that you have to concentrate onforging relationships with more senior people to get on is misguided. “Ialways get people to list a number of critical colleagues without whom a jobwould not get done. They often find that those they rely on most are sidewayspeople, not upwards people. So they shouldn’t worry about sucking up [to thosein authority]. We can get hooked into people’s approval and that becomes a keydriver. But that’s not what I’m talking about. You’ve got to have a strategy toget yourself noticed.”ForHolbeche at Roffey Park, the successful practice of politics at work is, aboveall, an exercise in accumulating and demonstrating personal capital. “Youshould see it as building up your own stock. Build your visibility, but withcare. Don’t make yourself a natural target, but build up your profile so peoplewant to attach themselves to you.” Auseful exercise in personal power, adds Colin Selby, is to check out yourmarket worth on a regular basis. “I used to try and get a job offer eachyear. This was partly so that I didn’t feel completely under the power andcontrol of my employer, but also so that I could be sure that myview of the market was accurate. Any person that doesn’t do thisis not likely to be a force within an organisation.”Butthe most successful political operators are also those with an instinctiveawareness of where the real power in their organisations lies, and thatinvolves much more than checking one’s own market worth. “You need to keepyour ear to the ground,” claims Kiddy. “You need to be alert towhat’s happening around you. Look at the sources of power in your office andask yourself where does it come from?” If that means hanging around by thecoffee machine, or even shivering on the steps with the smokers, then so be it.The important thing is that you need to be able to anticipate events to giveyourself the best chance of making the best of them. AsHolbeche concludes: “What goes on in an organisation frequently defies alllogic. There’s no such thing as fairness, so people do need to tune into what’sgoing on from a political point of view. It’s a question of putting intopractice some fairly basic skills that would once have been the preserve ofgo-getters. The important thing to realise now is these are a basic stock intrade of anyone who wants to make a buzz.”PowerGamesHerewe look at three typical enough scenarios and how to tackle them.Amiddle manager is psyched out by the bossThescenarioYoulove your work and are, in general, very happy with your company, but your lifeis being made miserable by your boss. His behaviour towards you is fractiousand unpredictable and you are rarely given the opportunity to show off yourtalents. In fact you suspect that some of the tasks you have been set areintended to undermine you ñ you have twice taken the rap for failed projectsthat you believed were ill-advised in the first place. You have a potentialally in a former boss who hired you, but who has since been promoted and is nowout of daily contact.PoliticaldiagnosisYourboss’s behaviour indicates a strong degree of insecurity about his ownposition, and he clearly perceives you to be a threat. You can take somecomfort from the fact that he is exacerbating his own position by behaving sounprofessionally. But the situation is untenable. By allowing it to continueyou risk credibility with colleagues. More damagingly, you may begin toquestion your own self-worth and judgement. ActionAssessyour respective power-bases: your boss’ own standing with his peers and seniorswill have a major influence on the way you act. Is he justified in hisinsecurities, or is he a valued member of the team? Does he command affectionfrom others, if not from you? Sniff out opinion.Ifhis general position in the company is strong, your best course of action is toavoid an open battle ñ you must try and win him over to your side instead.Build up his confidence by doing obvious favours. Pay the occasionalcompliment. Suggest schemes that would reflect creditably on him. Make it clearyou are not after his job and demonstrate respect for what he does withoutlapsing into apology language. On no account attempt to contact your formerboss behind his back.If,on the other hand, you detect an overall weak position ñ strike hard. Take heedof Machiavelli: “Men should either be treated generously or destroyedbecause they take revenge for slight injuries ñ for heavy ones they cannot.”Startby shoring up your own power-base: are there others who would testify to yourskills and professionalism? Do you have a reputation as a good company player?Identify and align yourself with other power-brokers in the work place; makesure whoever you ally with is on good terms with senior management. Broadenyour spread of influence by making contacts with other departments. Renewinformal links with your former boss.Youare now in a position to challenge. Take the opportunity the next time yourboss makes an unreasonable demand.Aco-director threatens to reveal damaging personal information ThescenarioYouand Anna are both senior directors in a private company and used to be friendsñ at least you used to go to the pub together. You once confided a personaldilemma that would have severe repercussions on your professional and privatelife if disclosed. You and Anna have since fallen out dramatically over thedirection the company should take and your working relationship is strained.You now perceive her to be on the make at the expense of the rest of theorganisation. You both know a parting of the ways is inevitable. Anna isholding out for an exorbitant severance payment and has hinted she will revealyour secret if she doesn’t get it. You know that the amount in question will behard to justify to your fellow directors.PoliticaldiagnosisYouare certainly between a rock and a hard place and clearly have a ruthlessadversary. The main question is whether you will find it necessary to sink toher level in order to combat her.ActionThetemptation will be to pay Anna off and so see the back of her as quickly aspossible. You can then invent a plausible explanation for your co-directors atleisure. But this is a dangerous gamble and might encourage her to raisedemands, or return to dog your career at a later date. Significantly, it wouldalso mean that you too have now compromised your professional ethics. Thatgives her a double hold over you.Yourchoice therefore is either to reveal the situation in full to yourco-directors, or to try to call Anna’s bluff. A third option ñ confiding in atrusted ally ñ is ultimately flawed. Either that person will be powerless tohelp, or you risk inviting them to compromise their own professional ethics tocome to your aid. If you cannot count on your colleagues’ discretion andunderstanding, your best course of action is to return to Anna with a revisedfigure and dare her to do her worst. She might well reflect that you could alsoreveal some unsavoury facts about her.Infuture set clear boundaries as to what you will and won’t discuss withcolleagues. Don’t tell stories about your personal life that could be usedagainst you later.Yourauthority is being put to the test by an ambitious underlingThescenarioWhenJames first came into the department you had a good working relationship. Youbegan to delegate some of your work to him and found the process paid off. Hewas an effective problem-solver, with good ideas, and you believed the pair ofyou had struck up a degree of trust. Recently, however, you have noticed achange in James’ behaviour. He is less communicative; you have become awarethat he has withheld certain important pieces of information from you. Worse,your boss has mysteriously got wind of an incident that reflects badly on you,when you believed you had quietly settled it.PoliticaldiagnosisJamesis clearly attempting to sideline your role in the organisation in favour ofstriking up his own working relationship with your superiors. He knows the bestmeans of achieving this is by undermining you personally.ActionThefact that you are in this situation at all is ample proof that you have notbeen paying enough attention to the arts of office politics. James’ betrayaldemonstrates that you have failed to convince him that you are a personal forceto be reckoned with. But even more damaging is the fact that your boss appearsto be colluding with him, albeit tacitly, indicating that you have also beenfailing to manage upwards effectively.Yourfirst step, therefore, is to consolidate your own position by tackling thesituation with your superior head-on. Be frank about your concerns about James.And be prepared to ram home the worth of your own contribution to the companyand if that means listing achievements, then do it. Try and extract from yourboss the undertaking that he or she will not allow James to report upwardswithout first consulting you.Itmight pay to take a less open approach when dealing with James himself: youdon’t want to further weaken yourself by admitting his behaviour has beenthreatening. Simply remind him that you are his superior and he is thereforeaccountable to you. Onereason for his attack on your authority might be that you have not beenassiduous enough in maintaining contacts around the organisation: people whodon’t network are isolated beings ñ and are therefore often seen asnon-essential in the informal office system and consequently easy targets forthe ambitious. Remember the next time you turn down an invitation to for apost-work drink that in business the gap between being viewed as non-essentialinformally, and redundant formally, is often a narrow one. Previous Article Next Articlelast_img

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