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Office Politics: How to thrive in a world of lying, backstabbing and dirty tricks - review

The office is increasingly full of devious and manipulative co-workers, this book by Oliver James claims. So what can you do about it, other than avoid them?

by Guy Browning
Last Updated: 27 May 2015

History and business autobiographies are written by winners. Office politics books are written by work's losers. But that's not a bad thing.

If William Sommers, the personal jester of Henry VIII, had given his insights into how the Tudor court actually worked it would have been hugely valuable, especially as he survived the reign with his head attached.

Oliver James isn't a jester but as a journalist and psychologist he does have two of the requisites of one: keen insight and the ability to tell an engaging story.

Office politics is a great subject for a book simply because everyone has to put up with it and no one likes it. This is also a problem for the book; that's why the subtitle is very important and James's book has a cracker.

It might have been less gripping to have had How to rub along at work without excessive unpleasantness but that essentially is what this and every other book on office politics is about.

That is a shame, because we all know how to be decent and pleasant. That's why we buy this kind of self-improvement book. Of course, a little bit of us is attracted to the notion of The Bumper Book of Lying, Backstabbing and Dirty Tricks in the same way that books on violent criminals sell well. And that, to be fair to James, is what he delivers in the first half of the book.

James identifies a Dark Triad (lovely touch) of psychopaths, machiavels and narcissists, whom we've all known and worked with and, of course, whom none of us are. Reassuringly, he points out (and, remember, James is a proper psychologist) that psychopaths are four times more common among senior executives than among workers.

The early chapters are good on how these various dysfunctional types make progress at work and misery for co-workers.

He then claims that their prevalence has greatly increased in the past 30 years, principally because of the decline in the manufacturing of measurable things and the rise of target-led services: 'Into the shifting sands of this modern work environment slides the triadic person. An occupation that is an amoral desert is fertile soil for the triadic.' Beautiful.

The amoral deserts James picks as his main arenas for illustrating triadic behaviour are TV production, investment banking and the EU. James admits that the 'media and advertising include a great deal of people who are primarily psychotic', which I don't think is news to anybody, even Lord Justice Leveson.

A very large number of pages are then given over to a loving and detailed examination of one spectacularly dysfunctional investment banker called Charlie. It's a beautiful character sketch but it does verge on Fifty Shades of Triadism and, as James readily admits, he's hardly typical.

This is where the jester's inflated bladder bounces off the unreceptive head of reality. Obviously, the sectors chosen by James are happy hunting grounds for psychologists, therapists and quite often the police, but my hunch is that if he'd picked John Lewis, Crossrail and Diageo he might have concluded that there was a conspiracy of pleasantness and competence in the workplace.

The vast majority of problems at work are people problems. Those problems are inevitably communication problems, and the solution to just about every communication problem is to give people a damn good listening to.

It's great fun being in the company of these various Dark Triads (on paper at least) but how are we supposed to deal with them?

James tells us there is disturbingly little we can do about office psychopaths and recommends we put as much 'organisational space' between us and them. Is that 'space' as in carpet tiles or international boundaries? It's not clear and the reason it's not clear is that, despite the fun of these Dark Triads, they are not the major portion of working life, which, like the rest of life, is quite mundane.

In fact, James quietly admits at the very beginning of the book that what he means by office politics is 'the normal wheezes everyone uses to advance their interests'.

Then, in the last chapter, James trails his next book, which is about emotional health, applying it to Emotionally Healthy Office Politics. The secrets are living in the present, insight, communication, playfulness, vivacity and authenticity.

The difference between a job and a dog is that a dog is for life.

James rightly points out that a lack of job security tends to promote behavioural insecurity and selfishness.

On the other hand, where is the security in home life? Everything is constantly in flux and how we deal with this and the choices we make are all at their very heart politics. Or fun. Depending on whether you're a triad or a jester.


Office Politics: How to thrive in a world of lying, backstabbing and dirty tricks

Oliver James

Vermilion, £20.00

Guy Browning is managing director of business consultancy Smokehouse

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