Books: Office politics is a game you must play

After reading this short book packed with unflinching advice on gaining power, Stefan Stern needed a bit of a sit-down.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

- Power at Work - The art of making things happen, Jo Owen, Prentice Hall Business £10.99

Oh God, I just hate office politics!' I once protested to a friend. 'No you don't,' he replied. 'You hate losing at office politics.'

Good point. Every workplace and every organisation is by definition political. As John Hunt of the London Business School used to say: 'When two people meet, a hierarchy is formed.' Failing to acknowledge this is naive. By excusing yourself from conflicts and tense situations at work, you are applying a self-imposed ceiling on your career. A less stressful option, perhaps, but almost certainly a poorer one too in every sense.

Jo Owen's new book performs a useful service. He writes as a candid, even cynical, friend. His text is brisk, unflinching, uninhibited, and almost completely lacking in self-doubt. It's only 165 pages long, but quite an onslaught. You may need a bit of a sit-down afterwards.

Owen's theme is power: getting it, building it and keeping it. To show too much ambition has, traditionally, not gone down very well in the British workplace. Even the crude TV representations of business - such as Sir Alan Sugar's The Apprentice or Evan Davis' Dragons' Den, where competitors are encouraged to seek power - are essentially about individualistic displays of ambition. The difficulty lies in navigating all the power relationships and networks with other colleagues in organisations.

This is where Owen's lucid approach comes in handy. 'For most managers, the real competition is not in the marketplace,' he writes in his introduction. 'The real competition is sitting at a desk nearby.'

As well as having a high IQ and displaying 'emotional intelligence' (EQ), says Owen, we need to develop our political quotient, or PQ. He is relentless in explaining how PQ can steer you through the dangerous rapids in your career to an agreeable outcome.

Leaders with a high PQ realise that they cannot achieve success on their own. 'Power does not lie with the individual: it lies in the power of the system,' Owen says. 'Look at what happens to great leaders when they leave their power base. Most of them disappear into the irrelevance of committee and commission land, where they can produce reports alongside other worthy but washed-up ex-leaders.'

It is the organisation that counts. As Warren Buffett says: 'When a manager with a great reputation joins an organisation with a lousy reputation, it is normally the reputation of the organisation which remains intact.'

Owen is so convinced by the power of PQ that his assertions sometimes over-reach themselves. 'Manage the politics and the rational arguments will manage themselves,' he claims. Not in some of the places I've worked they haven't. But, mostly, he makes smart observations on power, how to deal with it and how to get it. 'As with money, so with power,' he writes. 'New power shouts, old power whispers.'

He offers some sensible advice. 'Ditch PowerPoint. Now,' he urges. 'PowerPoint presentations put you in the role of the defendant pleading a case while the bosses sit back and judge you. They're not on your side: they are assessing you. Instead... discuss your idea in private with key power brokers. Seek their advice as much as their support.'

And power back at base cannot be neglected, even if you are away on a crucial assignment. 'Work your network hard,' Owen advises. 'Find excuses to stay in touch with the power factory and buy as many round-the-world tickets as needed to make sure they do not forget your face. Your network will alert you to the evolving politics and what career opportunities might be available on your return.'

Power is elusive, slippery, attractive, dangerous. Handle it with care. When dealing with those more powerful than ourselves, we have to be nimble and sensitive, without revealing how hard we are trying.

Yet power can go to your head. 'Something odd happens when you finally become partner or CEO,' Owen writes. 'Suddenly, all your jokes become funnier... Your judgment and ideas become better.'

But if you want more power, you have to do something about it. 'Doing nothing is not an option for managers. Doing nothing means that power ebbs away. To stay powerful, you have to use power. Use it well, and you acquire more power.'

In the 1970s, Citizen Smith may have urged the good folk of Tooting to heed his cry of 'Power to the people!'. But Citizen Owen has a different slogan for the new millennium: 'Power to the manager!'

- Stefan Stern writes a weekly column on management for the FT and is a contributing editor at MT.

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