How to survive serial career killers

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 29, 2013

Office Politics: How to Thrive in a World of Lying, Backstabbing and Dirty Tricks

By Oliver James

277 pages/Vermillion/$29.95 with GST from Books Kinokuniya

THE phrase "playing politics" has a scummy feel about it, as it is often thought to be the reason why many top talents do not get to the top in the concrete jungle that is the office.

But, as British psychologist Oliver James argues in this book, everybody in the workplace is politicking, whether or not he or she admits it.

From blatant bootlicking to the subtler sabotaging of competitors, James insists, politics is as natural as breathing is for one's survival.

That said, he notes that Western work culture, particularly in the United States and Britain, thrives on more aggressive one-upmanship, backstabbing and palm-greasing to oust rivals.

But Asians value face and mandate modesty more, he notes.

Still, that may not hold for long, he says. Manufacturing, where workers' results were easily measurable and so made politicking unnecessary, no longer provides most of the world's jobs; services do, and there is no definite and objective yardstick to judge who serves others better.

Also, there is little that separates your skills from that of others.

So, in an age when competition is the only constant, he says, more people are resorting to "a Dark Triad" of traits: the psychopathic, the Machiavellian (after the scheming Italian courtier Niccolo Machiavelli, who wrote the backstabbing bible The Prince) and the narcissistic.

You can tell a psychopath from how little he feels for others, while the Machiavel always uses others only for his or her own ends. The narcissist is, perhaps, the most harmless triad member, being in love with himself or herself and so is always trying to lord it over others.

His research shows that serial career killers stalk banking, broadcasting, the civil service and trade blocs such as the European Union.

"Into the shifting sands of these modern work environments slides the triadic person," he notes. "An occupation that is an amoral desert is fertile soil for the triadic."

They are less prevalent in journalism and other professions where people work largely on their own.

James adds a lot of value to defeating the triad by showing you how best to deploy four essential office survival tactics to ever-fluid office scenarios. This is eminently more enlightening than most political survival kits, which assumes that any particular problem will remain static when human ties are anything but.

The tactics are:

  • Astuteness, or being able to read who and what your company really prefers, and what your colleagues are really like.

For example, using a case study of a banker named Charlie and his boss Jerry that runs throughout the book, James cites how one of Charlie's brilliant Harvard-educated colleagues rubbed Jerry the wrong way just by refusing to fawn on him.

Jerry saw to it that the poorly attuned chap was so pecked that he quit;

  • Effectiveness, or knowing how to act convincingly in your favour in front of others in the workplace, and when to press home your advantages to the boss.

For example, James shows in the book how Charlie cleverly planted seeds of doubt in Jerry's mind about Charlie's rivals. He did so just by saying innocuous things such as "Well, X did well this time around", thus suggesting to the boss that the rival was erratic;

  • Networking, or securing as many powerful and influential contacts as possible to bolster your social standing - and make your boss think twice about offending you;
  • Appearing sincere, or behaving as if you were genuine when you are actually just trotting out a persona that you have carefully crafted to protect yourself from office predators.

As James shows through Charlie, who is real, you have to be like a "chameleon", changing your colours in response to what the flavour of the month is. To James' credit, he details how Charlie himself quit global finance after five years, nauseated by such deceit.

Now, here is the rub: James' research shows that triadic beasts are more likely to be senior managers than running footmen, in a ratio of 4:1. Does this mean employees have only themselves to blame for putting up with bad behaviour?

Yes and no, James argues.

First, it's a no because those who refuse to kiss up are simply defying reality. He cites the case of a very able, non-politicking executive who was sacked after her colleague sabotaged her by using her e-mail address to send a racist rant to the entire office. Nobody else believed for a moment that she was at fault, but they also did not want their guts ripped out if they stood by her.

But employees only have themselves to blame if they accept without question HR policies that mangle their morale, and so stunt growth. These include:

  • Forcing many employees to compete for a small bonus pot: Studies show that such "tournament-style" incentives actually compel employees to undercut one another maliciously, even when they knew everyone else knew what they were doing;
  • Having a big pay gap between high-achievers and the average worker: Such a gap will enrage many and fuel a lot of backstabbing to cut out competitors.

In this, James cites go-getter Giuseppe, who says anyone who reveals his salary to others should be sacked on the spot, because he has found such information most destructive to office bonhomie;

  • 360-degree assessments of a colleague's performance, which encourages character assassinations of others so one can be promoted faster: This puts lies on record, which will dog a victim's career, and sometimes kill it; and
  • Making job candidates and employees take numerous IQ and personality tests. These do not work because they are just snapshots of what those tested will do to get what they want.

To those who argue that one can get by on logic alone, James cautions: "When it comes to rationality, you should always remember that although you may win the battle through your superior ideas and evidence, that does not mean you will win the war."

Cheong Suk-Wai picks a book with interesting ideas in this fortnightly column, which alternates with The Big Idea, in which she meets a thinker.

FACT FILE: The shrink for Britain

BRITISH psychologist Oliver James has dedicated Office Politics, his 10th book, to the late David Macindoe, "whose thankless task it was to school me in office political skills".

Macindoe was not James' boss, colleague or work rival, but his housemaster at Eton College, Britain's vaunted school for tomorrow's leaders. Its alumni include Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, Thailand's ex-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and King Birendra, Nepal's late ruler.

James, 60, a child clinical psychologist and social anthropologist, has done enough impactful work for The Times of London to be dubbed "the nation's shrink". That was especially so after he began hosting a British TV series in 1997 - The Chair, in which celebrities were put on the proverbial psychologist's couch. Among his guests was the icy-slick Labour politician Peter Mandelson who, curiously, cried on TV when James queried him.

I interviewed James once, in 2004, when he was in Singapore to research why rich people tended to be unhappy with their lot. The alumnus of Cambridge and Nottingham universities proved as good a raconteur as he was a listener. That research resulted in his best-selling book, Affluenza, in which James showed that the affluent felt like effluent because they were caught in a vicious circle of craving things which not only could not satisfy them, but left them craving more.

The married father of two, who also writes regularly for The Guardian newspaper, says office politics "got a bad name" when it is "far from bad". "At its simplest,"he says, "it's just normal wheezes everyone uses to advance their interests."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 29, 2013

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