Real work: Beware of the snake

Are you Naive, Machiavellian, a Star or a Loser? HESTER LACEY looks at new research on the slippery world of office politics
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Manipulating, manoeuvring, backstabbing, bitching, bullying, string- pulling, game-playing, buck-passing, sucking up, stamping down, claiming success, diverting blame. Office politics can be a dog-eat-dog world. Someone, somewhere, is probably up to something in your workplace right now. Perhaps it's you? And if it isn't you, perhaps it should be.

A recent survey of recruitment consultancies showed that politicking ability is acknowledged as a must-have; if you don't have it you won't get on at work. "If you don't have political skills, your promotion prospects will suffer," warns Jane Clarke, director of the business psychology consultancy Nicholson McBride and author of Office Politics, the Industrial Society's new title.

Office Politics picks its way through the thorny thickets of workplace goings-on, and offers strategies for dealing with different situations, including managing relations with the awkward and learning how to influence and persuade others. But first of all, Jane Clarke says, you need to establish which of the four basic office types you most closely conform to. Are you Naive, a Star, Machiavellian or simply a Loser?

The categories are based on the combination of competency and motive - it's no good having everyone's best interests at heart if you are a tactless blunderer, while a silver-tongued negotiator whose main priority is feathering his own nest is hardly a desirable colleague. Naives are well intentioned but politically hopeless - they are irritatingly innocent, or in a slightly different guise annoyingly militant. Losers are unsubtle and prone to misjudging situations; transparently self-seeking, everyone can see through them. Machiavellians are mad, bad and dangerous to know - skilled manipulators but far from altruistic. Stars, meanwhile, are the perfect combination of skill and good intentions, and are often both competent and admired (and possibly rather smug, though Clarke does not mention this).

Between these four extremes, all poles apart, are lots of possible combinations. Some are less aspirational than others, such as the Unpredictable Snake, the Incompetent Tinkerer, the Passive Force and the Loose Cannon. There is evidently a fine line to tread. On the one hand, you could be beavering away behind the scenes and achieving impressive and worthy goals, even if you are using "unofficial" channels. On the other you can be seen as an evil tamperer and everyone else will hate you - including those above you, who may well view politicking with alarm. "Our own research has shown that senior people say office politics are widespread. But 80 per cent of them also say they are destructive," explains Clarke.

Politics per se, she agrees, are certainly rife. "If you have more than two people together you always have politics." But, she claims, this is not necessarily a bad thing. "Politics in the office needn't be sinister, devious or underhand. It's simply the informal rather than the formal way of doing things." And, she observes, much depends on who is playing. "If you admire someone, you call them influential. If you dislike them you think of them as manipulative."

This is not to say that loathing the very ground the marketing manager (or whoever) walks on can't be counterproductive. "In one bluechip company there were two senior people who couldn't get on - they made no secret of the fact that one would do anything to scupper the other. In another, a FTSE 100 company had two divisions, one of which quite deliberately sabotaged the efforts of another and it led to part of the business closing." Getting on the wrong side of office politics can be a nightmare. "Consultancies come up with clever solutions that are intellectually right for companies, but go wrong in implementation because two people on the board don't get on. That's when politics can really get in the way of business success."

However, Clarke believes that properly managed office politics can be positive, as long as the politicker is working the system for the common good and not purely for his own nefarious ends. "With an open management structure, there will still be politics in play but they will be positive ones," she says.

So how do you do it? Natural political animals run on pure instinct, says Clarke. "People who do it are not aware of what they're doing, and people who are good at it couldn't describe what they are doing and how they are doing it." All of which means politicking is a difficult skill to acquire, particularly for those who pride themselves on being above such machinations.

"You can't train it into someone who will have no truck with it," says Clarke. "If people really don't want to know, there's no point in encouraging them. But if you want to be more influential, you can learn. Skills that you can pick up include how to exert influence, how to manage your boss as well as how to change your image and be your own spin doctor."

This, of course, assumes that everyone wants to play nicely. Meeting a true Machiavellian - a manipulator and proud of it - takes careful handling. "If you are in a position of power then you can do something. It's all about saying what you are and aren't prepared to accept. You can't talk in vague terms; you need to be open - and brave." But if you can't stamp on them from above, then beware.

'Office Politics' by Jane Clarke, Industrial Society pounds 10.99. Tel: 0870 400 1000.

The word goes round that you're going to be fired. You are.

You secure extra funding for a pet project without upsetting anyone.

You announce a new redundancy policy the

week before Christmas.

You fire off 200 irritable e-mails a day but never bother actually talking to anyone.

You volunteer as Scout Leader for your boss's son's troop and give him special extra tuition in advanced knot-tying.

You talk up your latest project, even though it's only organising the office summer picnic.

You spread a rumour that's completely and humiliatingly wrong.

You encourage your team to be open about what they think. They are. It's not flattering. You thank them and vow to change.

Your brilliant networking brings in a pounds 1m contract for the company. You are a hero!

You reprimand someone publicly and make them cry. Everyone else thinks that you're mean.

Comments