Ever felt that your work colleagues are playing by a completely different set of rules? You know the type: the office climber whose eye is permanently fixed on a bigger goal than simply getting his or her job done and doing it well. Their aim? To scale the hierarchy through promotion and preferment, accumulating money and power along the way. And, damn it, many do.
Much research has been done into what qualities it takes to climb the corporate greasy pole. According to the corporate psychologist Bill Acker, managing partner of Acker Deboeck, which advises companies on executive recruitment, the "ideal" senior manager can be identified by a number of key traits. First, there is self confidence: total faith in their own abilities which ensures they never express any doubt that they will succeed. Second, influencing characteristics such as an ability to dictate exactly how things should be done and also to sell it persuasively. Then there are intellectual characteristics: strategic planning skills to realise goals, a need to gather information to check assumptions and an ability to see the wood for the trees. Finally, the knack of inspiring confidence and trust in bosses, subordinates and peers.
"Success comes down to an interaction between our nature, the situation we are in and the opportunities that we have," he says. "You can be very capable without the opportunity to reach your full potential. And you can be less able yet reach high because of how you were born."
Rings a bell, doesn't it? Almost all of us at some time will feel passed over by someone less efficient whose triumph seems down to little more than Machiavellian skills such as self-publicity, buck-passing and damage limitation. Oh, and compensating for any areas of personal weakness by surrounding themselves with a loyal team of complementary individuals.
But wait. According to Mr Acker, these climbers' success is not always guaranteed. "It's also about organisational nous and whether you transmit to others the idea that you are very selfish and only out to pursue your own goals," he points out. "If that is the case, people won't back you - and you do need the backing of people if you want to get right to the top."
Perhaps. But why, then, do so many office Machiavellis seem to get so far? They may not get right to the top, but they still manage to inspire the confidence of our superiors and, at worst, can make life for the rest of us very uncomfortable indeed.
Is there anything we can do to respond? Well, a clearer focus on our own career goals is a good starting point, along with an awareness of the changing needs of Nineties organisations. Paul Buchanan-Barrow, managing partner of the executive headhunters Korn Ferry International, says that one reason why successful people seem to have an innate ability to achieve their longer-term career goals is because unlike many other people, they are able to identify them. "In the early days of a career, people tend to say, `I need more experience in marketing, or in management,' and set about ensuring this to be able to move on. For most people, however, moving on is down to sheer chance - who knows when the next opportunity will come?"
Developing an on-going focus on where your career is going and being aware of the evolving need for new and different skills is critical, he believes. Once you have a clearer idea of where you want to go, identifying opportunities becomes easier. This will also give you greater confidence to think flexibly and, if necessary, move fast.
Identifying which skills you need to develop is also important. Dr Veronica Hope Hailey, senior lecture in human resource management at Cranfield School of Management, says: "Organisations as a consequence of delayering have stripped away formal career planning paths. Staff that will get on are those who can demonstrate they understand the requirement of Nineties organisations."
Businesses are looking for staff with a positive attitude to change, she explains. A flexible approach to working is also desired in place of rigid adherence to job description. Strong communication skills are essential, along with influencing and listening skills and an ability to work with diverse management cultures. Also, proof you can take responsibility for your own career - seeking out appropriate training rather than waiting for your boss to send you on a course.
Then there is "emotional resilience", she says. "That's the ability to demonstrate you can rise above the emotional ups and downs of corporate life - working with pressure and not getting overly stressed, which often goes hand in hand with an ability to balance work and family life."
A growing number of leading businesses, including Glaxo Welcome and Hewlett Packard, are shying away from workaholics in favour of those who lead more balanced lives, she maintains. And it makes financial sense. "There's a growing belief that stressed staff just don't perform as well."
Quite a shopping list. But can anyone learn these skills, or is it simply down to nature not nurture? Mr Acker hesitates. "Of course this is extremely difficult to prove. But I believe a lot of these things are in our nature. What we can do, however, is help people to develop them by offering constructive feedback on how the world sees them."
Dr Hope Hailey adds: "There will always be some people who have a greater natural ability in these competencies than others. We can all learn to sing, but only a few of us will ever do it really well."