There's no shame in playing office politics

Charmers and deceivers have thrived among our influential ruling elite, and others have followed suit. But Oliver James believes the tide may be turning

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The Independent Online

It has not been a good week for human decency. First came Chris Huhne. He finally confessed he has been lying through his teeth for 10 years about getting his wife to take the rap for a speeding offence. The sort of man he is emerged in a text to him from his then 18-year-old son: "We all know that you were driving and you put pressure on Mum. Accept it or face the consequences. You've told me that was the case. Or will this be another lie?"

Next up was Stephen Hester, chief executive of RBS. He lambasted his employees for manipulating the Libor rate as "an extreme example of a selfish and self-serving culture". But Hester embodies that culture. Although it had come to the attention of senior management some time before, the rate-fixing had continued up to November 2010, a year for which Hester received a £2m bonus. He may have waived the next windfall, but is due to get £700,000 next month.

Finally, we had Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Health, lamenting the lax management at Stafford Hospital, following shocking revelations of negligent care. This was the same J Hunt who had stood up at the Leveson inquiry and admitted that he had no idea that his special adviser, Adam Smith, had been effectively batting for BSkyB when supposed to be an impartial umpire in its takeover. If Hunt's management of his adviser was so poor, how can he be taken seriously commenting on management competence in the NHS?

Most of us just want to get by in life, and we try to be decent as we do so. We tend towards rumination – like unthreatening sheep, cows and common livestock eking out our living as best we can. Yet we have to confront the snakes, hyenas and other predators that stalk our workplaces, so it has become essential for all of us to wise up and develop better political antennae.

Narcissistic hubris, thick-skinned greed and ruthless self-interest have always existed at every level of society. What has changed is the extent to which they have become the norm amongst our ruling elite, and widespread in our office political culture.

Recent research has uncovered a dark triad of characteristics which are commoner among senior managers and celebrities than the general population: psychopathy (cold, callous ruthlessness), Machiavellianism (manipulative game-playing) and narcissism (me-me-me grandiosity).

Psychopathy was four times commoner than normal in a study of 200 American senior managers. A British study revealed significantly more narcissism in senior managers than patients in ordinary mental hospitals or inmates in a secure prison for violent offenders.

Not only is triadic behaviour more prevalent in our leaders, the overall amount has grown considerably, particularly since the 1980s. The menagerie of charmers and deceivers parading before Lord Justice Leveson illustrated how our ruling elite is routinely triadic.

Part of the reason for this change is that only 11 per cent of us now work in manufacturing. Where once you either did, or did not, produce 100 widgets a day and were paid per widget, today it is virtually impossible to measure your daily output and to assess its value. Your pay and promotion largely depend on the subjective view of your boss. Whether they like and respect you becomes vital, reflecting your office political skills.

We all know talented people who have not succeeded as much as they should for lack of political nous. Alas, its not what you do, it's the way that you represent it, that gets career results.

That does not mean you have to become a backstabbing wolf, but a certain foxiness is all right. I am mounting a one-man campaign to cleanse the words "office politics" of their taint as cheating, devious, amoral behaviour. Rather, I want everyone to realise that they are a crucial component of emotional health. Resources are finite, there are only so many good jobs, pots for bonuses are limited. It is completely healthy to use wheezes to advance your interests.

Offspring do it to secure parental love and treats, spouses use them on each other all day long. At work, they are even more important, things like flattery, chameleonism and "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" favours. However, such strategies are not in themselves the key – there is no magic box of office political tricks.

Studies done in the past 15 years have identified four key elements. You need astuteness, being able to read others, your organisation and yourself. Having understood what is going on and made plans, you require effectiveness at executing them. That means knowing which combination of tactics to use, on whom, when, performed skillfully. There is always some measure of thespianism – deliberate pretences and acting. Part of knowing who to pick derives from the third element, networking: carefully nurtured relationships, within and beyond your organisation, enable you to press the right buttons. They build your reputation, oil wheels and are vital for moving between jobs. Finally, you must have the appearance of sincerity: if your colleagues have lost faith in your honesty and integrity, it will be hard to progress.

By honing these skills, you can cope much better with triadic colleagues. The evidence shows the skilled will also suffer less stress in the insecure, unstable working conditions of most of us. But that does not solve the systemic problem. For it is not only the rise of service industries which has caused the rise in Triadic psychology.

For 30 years ,we have endured a form of political economy which also greatly nurtures it. In America, the apogee of free -market economics, studies prove that people who are openly aggressive and rude are more likely to get to the top. Narcissistic bigging yourself up is essential too, modesty is for wimps.

In this country it is not a party political matter. I speak whereof I know. I did my best to help Jack Straw when he was at the Home Office under New Labour, and later played a small part in advising the Tories in opposition on their well-being policies. As an Old Etonian who left the school in 1972, I am conscious that the current ruling Etonians, in their forties, were Thatcher's children. Not for them, it seems, the morality of the likes of Peter Carrington, who resigned when the Falklands were invaded.

Following the credit crunch, you might have supposed that neoliberal thinking was dead and buried. After all, the banks – deregulated storm troopers of the free-market army – nearly caused the collapse of the world economy. The taxpayer picked up the tab for the gamblers in the City casino.

How could anyone ever again utter the mantra "private sector efficient, public sector bloated and incompetent"?

Yet here we are with a government packed with triadic characters wedded to uber-Thatcherism. Nick "no university fees" Clegg, Huhne and the other Lib Dems are just as afflicted as their Tory bedfellows. They are outsourcing to their private-sector backers and mates as fast as they can, in health and education. And across on the opposition benches sit Ed Balls and fellow Blatcherites, none of them likely to hold Blair and his pals responsible for their lies about the Iraq war.

A massive gulf has opened up between the ruling elite and the rest of us, and not just in terms of their eye-watering wealth. Most people are not triadic and abhor such behaviour. When a population and its rulers become so estranged, something has to give. The only questions are when? And how?

Oliver James is the author of 'Office Politics: How to Thrive in a World of Lying, Backstabbing and Dirty Tricks' (Vermilion)