Act like a owl, think like a fox
Thursday 29 January 1998
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.
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