Books: Forget management speak, learn verminicity

Knowing the language of the sewer will help you win at work, according to this entertaining and un-PC book, says Cary Cooper Joep Schrijvers is a management consultant with the Dutch Employers Organisation, lecturing and writing about corporate politics, irrational behaviour and change processes. At first, you might think this is just another management self-help book by just another consultant to promote their practice, but you'd be wrong. It's one of the most refreshing organisational behaviour books I have read in a long time. It is not only extremely perceptive in its view of human behaviour at work, but is also fun to read.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Let me start with the concept. In Schrijvers' words: 'In China and Japan, the rat is considered a symbol of good luck and wealth. In the West, however, rats are reviled as sewer-dwelling devious vermin - an appropriate symbol for those people who play at office politics for their own gain. How do you survive the cut-throat game of office politics? There is only one way - by learning the "way of the rat".'

So, the purpose of the book is to understand the behaviour of those in office politics who are successful, not by scientific 'management speak', but by 'verminicity'. Workplace behaviour and politicking, suggests Schrijvers, should be exposed not by 'intellectual drivel' or the scientific vocabulary of management scholars, but by the metaphorical 'language of the sewer'.

Management gurus and academics over-intellectualise the 'base' behaviour of office politics, and Schrijvers implores: 'From today on, we stop pushing everyday reality through the grinder of propriety ... From now on, we'll use normal language ... the language of anger, coldness and power. Language that bewitches, humiliates, defiles. The language of villains - the language of rats!'

Heavy and crude as this may seem, Schrijvers tries to use words that describe what actually goes on. For example, he suggests that managers frequently say 'inspire' or 'motivate' when they really mean 'manipulate'; or 'committed' when they mean 'crawling'. It is cynical and un-PC, but it brings to the forefront some important aspects of human behaviour in organisations, without the obfuscation of academic propriety.

The book's eight chapters include an introduction entitled 'Welcome to the Sewer', and they have names such as 'The Audition' and 'The Game'.

The Audition chapter provides a self-report questionnaire to measure your own 'verminicity' - essentially, how 'organisationally political' you are - with statements such as 'I really enjoy participating in political games in my company' or 'I always look for the other person's weak spot'.

The next chapter explores the battlegrounds where political or rat behaviour takes place. Knowing the arenas, the players and their weaknesses will help you to win the battles. One chapter highlights the various sources of power each individual has in an organisation. Schrijvers' bottom line is summarised as: 'The art is to push ahead with the power that you have, and to get more of the power that you don't have.'

He goes on to explore the winning tactics and tricks of the successful rat. These are highlighted in graphic descriptors, such as 'screwing the other', 'opportunistic humiliation activities' such as belittling somebody else to enhance your own self-confidence and visibility, 'fighting your battles through somebody else' and 'leaks and gossip'. Although this appears negative, it is an exercise in making explicit the behaviour that takes place just below the surface but is rarely discussed or exposed.

The chapter on 'The Game' explains that to be successful you have not only to understand the bigger picture of your organisation but also your own strategy. Work out your objectives and then develop a game plan, with an opening move, middle game and endgame.

The final chapter, 'Surfing to Tradition', shows that much of today's organisational politics is rooted in the past in fables and proverbs that stem from Plato, Machiavelli and onwards. And the book ends with a curious epilogue, an allegorical story that I wish I could understand.

I strongly recommend this book for its novel style and words of wisdom. Don't be put off by what appears to be a negative view of organisational life; it's merely a vehicle to whet the appetite.

This book is consistent with the view expressed last century by George Bernard Shaw when he wrote in Mrs Warren's Profession: 'People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don't believe in circumstances.

The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can't find them, make them.'

Cary Cooper, CBE, is professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School and president of the British Academy of Management

The Way of the Rat: A survival guide to office politics

By Joep Schrijvers

Cyan Books £7.99

MT price £6.99 (see panel, p33)

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