Act like a owl, think like a fox

Why is it that some people thrive in the cut-and-thrust of the business environment, and others fail? The answer may lie in the type of animal cunning employed in your office politicking: are you a fox, a sheep, a donkey or, best of all, a wise owl? John van Maurik reports on a guide to survival - and lethal tactics - in the corporate jungle.

It was Benjamin Franklin who coined the saying, "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." But anybody who has worked in an organisation will probably add a third element to the list: organisational politics. Avoiding any of the three is downright impossible, no matter how important you are, and - as Julius Caesar found out - by the time you get to say "Et tu, Brute" it is usually too late to do anything about it.

While conflict between individuals is usually overt, in the open and noisy, there is another form of conflict which is often silent, less obvious and less often discussed. Yet, like the poor, it is always with us, despite the fact that little has been written about it and it is not often openly discussed. Could this be because people find the subject distasteful or because they think it is unworthy of attention? It is certainly not found in the syllabus of any MBA programme or management course that I have come across, and the sensible reaction must be "What an opportunity wasted!" It is probable that more strategies have floundered and more careers come to grief because of organisational politics than for any other reason.

On the other hand, people have been aware of political game-playing since the beginning of time - or at least since the beginning of organised life. It was Socrates who first coined the phrase "political animals", while much later Charles Darwin was to declare that "All things start in vision and mystery and end in politics" - a stark reminder for leaders of all persuasions.

So what should you do when you are confronted with or suspect organisational politics? Do you deny its existence? Avoid it? Rise above it? Accommodate it by indulging in it yourself?

Whatever stance you take, you will be presented with dilemmas. By not playing the game, do you let yourself down? By playing it, do you sacrifice your integrity, thereby letting yourself down in possibly more far-reaching ways?

These are difficult questions. Indeed, if you are a management trainer, a high proportion of the extracurricular questions (ie, those asked in the bar at the end of the day) focus on these thorny issues.

The short answer to the integrity question is a categorical "No! Never sacrifice it." However, it is possible to retain your integrity and still be politically smart. In the United States, the Center for Creative Leadership conducted a study of the reasons why fast-track managers derailed. They found that young executives often displayed characteristics of extreme ambition, drove themselves and other people hard, and did not often care what others thought of them. Frequently these characteristics manifested themselves in political manoeuvres, but it was those same characteristics that undermined them later in their careers.

Senior managers needed to be more strategic, take longer-term perspectives and be more skilful and considerate in dealing with people. Those who remained over-ambitious, abrasive and willing to do anything tended to come unstuck. In short, those who lived by the sword, died by the sword.

Further light on the integrity vs survival dilemma is shed by research carried out at Birmingham University, which divided people into four different animal groups when it came to politics. The criteria for the grouping depended on whether they were interested and informed about what was going on politically in their organisation, and the extent to which they put themselves or the company first.

The sheep, they stated, did not know what was going on but were loyal, hardworking and put the organisation first. They tended to be cannon fodder. Donkeys, on the other hand, also did not know what was going on, but put themselves first, often grumbled and were stubborn about adapting to changes. They were usually given more work, and were overlooked when it came to promotion.

A far more positive animal was the wise owl, who knew exactly what was going on, and who was doing what to whom - but did not indulge in such manoeuvres himself. Owls were loyal to the organisation and had high integrity. They did not always reach the top, but they did enjoy respect from colleagues and were more secure than most.

Finally, there were the foxes. Foxes knew and played all the political games and, being ambitious, always put their own interests before those of other people, as well as the organisation itself.

Which animal would you choose to be? Having asked that question of a large number of managers of different nationalities, I find that the invariable consensus is that you need to behave like an owl while knowing how to think like a fox. In other words, without sacrificing your integrity or self-respect, you need to know the games and how they are played in order to counter those that might be played against you.

But what are the games, what is it that the foxes do? The following represent some of the more common ploys that I have observed. I am sure that the list is incomplete, and you may care to add to it from your own experiences.

Discrediting someone else, implying that what they did was "courageous" - ie, foolish - or by damning with faint praise;

Hoarding information and either using it to one's own advantage or releasing it only when you have benefited from it in some way;

Manipulating meetings - never giving straight answers, and using the meeting to promote your own viewpoint;

Spending inordinate amounts of energy to impress, please and flatter those more senior (some quite rude adjectives are used to describe this sort of behaviour, often concerned with the colour of the individual's nose);

Spreading rumours to undermine other people's initiatives - even if false, the harm has been done;

Playing power games between departments and, by implication, dragging all those who work for those departments into the game;

Abusing your power by putting colleagues and subordinates into difficult positions, often passing the onus of making your own difficult decisions on to them;

Covering up your own mistakes and trying to shift the blame for them on to other people;

Inordinate hogging of the limelight and somehow managing to claim promising initiatives as your own;

On the other hand, never being around when things go badly wrong, yet always being first to say "I told you so".

So how do you counter these ploys, manoeuvrings and manipulations? The following general strategies may be helpful as an overall guide.

Be aware - understand the opportunities for politicking that the foxes may seize;

Study the politicians - look for trends, common characteristics and repeat behaviours, and from these, learn to anticipate what they might get up to;

Ask yourself why these people are playing politics - could it be due to ambition, boredom, fear, love of power or even love of mischief? Knowledge of motive may well lead to detection and prevention, as Sherlock Holmes would tell you;

Try to defuse situations wherever possible. Is it possible to insist on straightforward dealings from everyone without this appearing to be appeasement?

If that does not work, approach possible allies and go for strength in unity;

Finally, there is the option of confronting the issue with Mr or Ms Fox and showing that you understand what is going on. But be sure that you are on firm ground before you start. As this may result in conflict of a more open kind, choose your subject carefully, assess the other person's strengths and weaknesses, and be sure your facts are correct.

But this in itself is beginning to sound political. The fact is that there are no easy answers, although there can be guidelines.

In the end, in order to prosper, for your strategies to be effective you must be "aware", and learn to apply this awareness in ways that enforce your position rather than detract from it. All your skills in questioning, listening and, above all, using your intuition must be deployed to ensure that you are effective, no matter what the situation. Keeping your antennae out at all times and having a few counter-measures in your kit bag need not compromise your integrity, and does not mean that you necessarily become a fox, but it does make you a better owl.

Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003