Such changes demand a radical rewrite of the office Machiavelli's manual. Devil's advocate Guy Browning is here to oblige (above). Judi James, for the office angels, says: Don't go there (below).
HOW TO PLAY THE MODERN WAY
There are three kinds of people in business: the competent, the incompetent and the political. The competent rise on merit, the incompetent rise because of a shortage of competent people, and the political rise by taking credit from the competent while blaming the incompetent. This is as it always was in the past and as it will be till the crack of doom (which the political will blame on the incompetent). Other aspects of working life are changing fast, though. Here are the new office politics for survival in today's work jungle.
TEAMS MEANS MATES - Political correctness in business means that there are no individual achievements any more, only team achievements. The current climate is now exposing the myth of teams. It's difficult to feel a strong sense of loyalty to the team when they're still in the office and you're signing on. Instead, people are putting more time and energy into virtual teams. These are a combination of colleagues, friends, customers and suppliers whom you like and trust. This is the team you rely on to get your job done, and the team you'll rely on if you have to call in favours, start up on your own or get a new job in a hurry.
UPWARD MANAGEMENT - Bottom-kissing still works wonders in the office, and there are people who spend so much time doing it that only their feet are visible. However, something has changed in this ancient art and that is the rise of 'coaching'. This requires a lot of stroking, sympathetic listening and winsome nodding. In the old days, you only did this if you were intent on some serious brown-nosing. But now that coaching behaviour is a standard manage- ment technique, it's difficult to know whether someone is making an attempt to flatter you or to coach you. The rule is: you're being flattered if you feel good, you're being coached if you feel patronised.
DISEMPOWERMENT - Empowerment is now generally agreed to be absolute nonsense. It was a lovely phrase to cover three running business sores. The first was deep job cuts that left management structures so flat the board were sitting within inches of the front line. The second was the mistaken assumption that everyone was interested in improving the business rather than getting out of the business and into the pub. The third was that empowerment was supposed to make companies more responsive to the customer, whereas customers only really know what they want when they get it.
We're not quite back to command-and-control, but the way it works in today's office is: 'We'll tell you what to think and then you can think it.' For the office politician, empowerment is still a lethal weapon.
When you don't want to do something, empower someone else to do it; when you want to do something you probably shouldn't be doing, empower yourself.
JOB RETENTION - In the balmy days of economic boom, individual loyalty was bought with golden handcuffs. Today's job market is tighter than the FD's wallet, and people are voluntarily retaining themselves. Recruiters constantly complain that they have lots of candidates for jobs but few that are any good. That's because the good ones are staying put. Savvy office politicians no longer take headhunters' calls. Instead, they redirect them to their rivals in the office because they've 'heard they're looking'.
YOU'LL LEARN - A decade of organisations banging on about learning has taught the workforce one thing: they should be learning something (and not just how to secretly print out their CV in colour). People have an expectation that they should be improving, and subliminally they measure their boss on whether they are.
The office politician can use this by giving people a whole tray of poisoned chalices labelled 'rich learning opportunities'.
Furthermore, a continual thirst for learning is the best possible way of being sent on training courses and personal develop- ment sessions, the office equivalent of absolute idleness.
E-MAIL - When you open your inbox and see 200 e-mails waiting for you, there will be three you want to read and 197 that are there for the sole purpose of arse-covering. Sending an e-mail is the electronic equivalent of passing the buck. Modern e-mail programs mean you can also prove that your victim opened your buck, read the buck and is well and truly bucked.
Sending an e-mail is like saying 'team' instead of 'I'. It's something you do without thinking. You know something is really important in business when you find someone sitting in front of you, using the word 'I'.
HOME OFFICE - When you work from home, the standard rules of office politics no longer apply. For a start, you have to make your own tea. The best thing is that you can get more work done in an hour than you can in an entire day in the office. The worst thing is that you can work yourself into an early grave because there are no meetings to alleviate the stress of working.
SEXUAL POLITICS - Two trends are emergent in office sex. The first is the proliferation of codes of conduct cracking down on office romances. These policies don't spell out whether having full-blown intercourse on the boardroom table is romantic or just plain dirty. They're bound to fail anyway; not thinking about sex in the office is like not thinking about work in bed. Market forces have had a greater impact on sexual politics: there are now many more women in offices. This means more permutations for office coupling than ever before.
You are less likely to receive the unwanted sexual attention of someone if you are already receiving the wanted attention of someone else (and the whole office knows about it).
EMPIRE-BUILDING - Empire-building is a thing of the past in the workplace. Instead, we have neo-colonialism: spreading your influence, power and budget without being accountable for anything. As times get tougher, there will be a return to silo or smokestack mentality. This will be exacerbated by office politicians, who know that progress in an organisation comes from looking up, not across.
WIN-WIN - In today's working environment, it is forbidden to do something advantageous to yourself if it will disadvantage someone else. This would be a win-lose scenario, an outmoded 20th- century kind of thing. Instead, everybody makes sure they act and think in a win-win manner, which is good for you and good for me. Office politicians know that survival in the office remains a zero-sum game. If you still see the advantage of other people losing, com- fort yourself with the fact that you can safely talk about win-win but actually be referring to a double whammy where you win twice and they lose twice. Win-win for you, lose-lose for them.
STAY OUT OF IT - IT ISN'T FUNNY AND IT ISN'T CLEVER
Office politics are the nylon shagpile of corporate life. Sink to that level - however deviously, as Guy suggests - and all you'll get is carpet burns. Forget Guy's 'three kinds of people in business'. My advice is to rise above political shenanigans and create a fourth kind: the office angel. Be the one to set a non-aggressive, non-manipulative example to all and sundry, despite all your instinctive urges to roll up your sleeves and get stuck into the scrap.
Psychologically, the need to turn work into a daily battle requiring Machiavellian cunning to survive is completely natural. Herd animals into an enclosure and you get physical signs of aggression and fear. Herd humans into that giant pig-pen known as the open-plan office and that desire to fight emerges as office politics.
ACCEPT THE INEVITABLE - Accepting the inevitability of this gruesome sub-culture is the first step in dealing with it. The next is to decide to stay out of it at all costs. Keep in mind that it is destructive, time-wasting, energy-consuming, emotionally draining piffle. It's not funny and it's not clever. You are bigger and you are better. I'm sorry, Guy, but when it beckons you to play, it should look no more tempting than a pig inviting you to wrestle in the mud.
GOSSIP AND BACK-STABBING - Gossip is to office politics what a draught is to a fire. Sadly, it is also often the only effective form of communication that a company has. In general, a rumour will circulate an entire firm in about one-tenth of the time it takes to cascade a management brief.
However, it is a form of attack and it comes under the heading of office politics, so ward it off at all costs. Ditto that peculiar death-by-chinwag setpiece known as 'slagging someone off'. The strategies for dealing with either will be the same:-
- Listen actively. Employ eye contact, nod, and assume an expression of concern when the slagger is talking.
- Limit your verbal response to nothing more committal than: 'Oh, really!' or 'Is that what you were told?'
- Nod reflectively when the slagger has finished, but then descend into thoughtful silence, punctuated by more slow nods. Do not speak at all.
Never pass the information on. I once read an epitaph that said: 'She never spoke ill of anyone'. Etched on a gravestone this would imply a tragically dull life, but quoted during a retirement speech it would suggest a wily and successful employee.
BE CHARISMATIC - Charismatic people glide through the perils of office politics like a warm knife through butter. They are polite and charming but also slightly distant. They park their real emotions by the lift each day and retrieve them only when they leave to go home. When tempted to descend into the quagmire, sit at your desk humming lightly for a while, as you repeat phrases like 'Sticks and stones ...' or 'Life's too short ...' etc.
DON'T JOIN GANGS - Teams mean taking sides. In the spirit of impartiality, never, ever nail your flag to any one mast. Think ahead. Even if your company is formed in the spirit of harmony and co-operation, that may not be the case in a few months' time. Takeovers, mergers and changes at the top can all result in 're-structuring'. Bob like a cork on water.
- Avoid friendships or relationships that go beyond the superficial. These imply loyalty and favouritism. Make real friends outside the business.
- If you're starting a new job or changing departments, take stock in advance. By palling up with one colleague you might be alienating yourself from others.
- When in doubt, play the 'mildly eccentric' card. Act a bit off-the-wall and you'll be viewed as a character, rather than a socially distant loner.
RAISE YOUR PROFILE VISIBLY, NOT VERBALLY - In going for the top job, avoid brown-nosing. Instead, work well and make sure people see you doing so.
To avoid looking over-competitive, encourage and coach others. Be seen to be the one who can do the job well without fuss. Be knowledgeable and wise. Show logic and sanity when all around are locked in conflict. And be profitable, because these days most firms are run by the bean-counters.
NEVER PLOT REVENGE - However angelic your career trail, people will always feel obliged to do you down. This is often verbal and always involves a third person, who will relate the appropriate piece of slander. Remember:-
- Stay calm and judge by facts and evidence.
- If you distrust the slanderer, distrust the one who passed the message on. Their motives are yet more suspect.
- Never plot revenge. It is a sad use of energy.
- Never retaliate, for the same reason. They are only doing what animals do. Did you expect anything else?
E-MAIL I take Guy's point on the perils of e-mail. They are the anti-Christ and so, as a general rule, keep away from them, except for factual information-drops. They lack vocal tone, which means anything with emotional attachment can and will be misread by a largely paranoid workforce, even the word 'Thanks'.
WORKING FROM HOME - Far from being a haven away from politics, as Guy suggests, working from home puts you at a disadvantage. While I would suggest rising above office politics, I'd never consider abdicating altogether, because this gives would-be assassins free reign in your absence. Anyone not present when register is being called invariably gets the blame for every cock-up, missed sale or missing stapler that ensues in the working day.
SEXUAL POLITICS - Flirting at work is acceptable only as long as it is part of your overall image. Otherwise, it will be perceived as a form of sporadic sucking-up. The problem is not so much the ones you flirt with as the ones you don't, so a scorched-earth policy only here, please.
Affairs are tricky because - like non-sexual friendships - they constitute an allegiance. Be discreet, but always remember that everyone will know.
- Judi James offers suggestions for further reading on the subject of office politics in the book review section.