Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Successby Rick Brandon
Each day in business, a corporate version of "survival of the fittest" is played out. Power plays,
Two of the nation's most successful corporate leadership consultants now reveal their proven, systematic program for using the power of "high-integrity" politics to achieve career success, maximize team impact, and protect the company's reputation and bottom line.
Each day in business, a corporate version of "survival of the fittest" is played out. Power plays, turf battles, deceptions, and sabotages block individuals' career progress and threaten companies' resources and results. In Survival of the Savvy, Rick Brandon and Marty Seldman provide ethical but street-smart strategies for navigating corporate politics to gain "impact with integrity," helping readers to:
-Identify political styles at work through the Style Strengths Finder, and avoid being under or overly political
-Discover the corporate "buzz" on you, and manage the corporate "airwaves"
-Decipher unwritten company rules and protect yourself from sabotage and hidden agendas
-Build key networks to promote yourself and your ideas with integrity
-Learn to detect deception and filter misleading information
-Increase your team's organizational savvy, influence, and impact
-Gauge the political health of the company and forge a high-integrity political culture
In addition, Survival of the Savvy helps individuals discover and overcome their own political blind spots and vulnerabilities. They learn step-by-step methods to avoid being underestimated or denied full recognition for their achievements. It shows them how to put forward their ideas and advance their careers in an ethical manner, with a high level of political awareness and skill.
After reading this book, you will never have to say, "I didn't see it coming." Organizational savvy is a mission-critical competency for the complete leader. This timely and timeless book provides cutting-edge strategies and skills for surviving and thriving as you build individual and company success.
Organizational politics exist in every company. The authors of Survival of the Savvy define them as the "informal, unofficial and sometimes behind-the-scenes efforts to sell ideas, influence an organization, increase power, or achieve other targeted objectives" — but that is merely a practical definition. Real-life organizational politics have the power to be either constructive or destructive based on whether their targeted goals are for the company's interest or only self-interests, or whether the influence efforts used to achieve those goals have integrity or not.
In Survival of the Savvy, executive trainers Rick Brandon and Marty Seldman show those at all levels of an organization how to develop the skills and political savvy to sell their ideas in an ethical and competent way and influence others for the good of their company.
Sabotage and Power Plays
In their work as executive coaches, the authors explain that they have seen many people at all levels of the playing field hurt by political blind spots. They write that these people suffer from stolen credit and personal agendas, sabotage and power plays, fear of speaking the truth to powerful people, or egos and favoritism. They write that they have watched overly political people do whatever they can to get into positions of power while damaging competent, loyal people or destroying organizational performance. Leaving a company and joining another is rarely the answer for victims, they explain, because the same dynamics often appear at the next company.
Organizational politics are human nature, they write, but there is a way for less political people to thrive in toxic settings. The authors explain that these people "can't truly thrive until company leaders wake up and remove their blinders."
To help executives ethically gain power, help their teams achieve greater influence and impact, and take bold steps to rescue the political cultures of their companies, the authors provide strategies they can use to improve their organizations. With the goal of "making organizational politics a personal virtue, career management tool, team development vehicle, and a cultural asset on the company balance sheet," the authors describe the impact of political styles and the individual tactics that can make a difference. They also present many leadership tactics that can be used to detect deception and build savvy teams and a savvy company.
Political Style Impact
As individuals navigate their ways through the changing political climates within their organizations, the authors write, their goals of business impact, influence on the job and career growth are fully in line with the goals of the company. But reorganizations, downsizing, new bosses, new initiatives, competing agendas, past perceptions and predatory people with self-serving agendas can create destructive politics and lead to attrition. To help leaders understand the political styles and mind-sets of different people, the authors describe the two political styles that dominate organizations — the Power of Ideas style and the Power of Person style — and help them optimize their own style's strengths and minimize its risks by avoiding extremes.
Next, the authors offer a way leaders can map the political styles of those around them and benefit from an awareness of these styles and their preferences. "We want to better collaborate and influence others by taking into account their operating systems," they write. "When you lobby for an idea or collaborate, you'll build more rapport and persuasion if you not only consider their business priorities, but also their political preferences."
After the authors have explained how readers can deactivate their political buttons by using a self-talk approach, they lay out a plan for detecting power dynamics, agendas and unwritten rules, and how to get a better grip on the corporate buzz that surrounds each of us. Other tips they offer include ways to promote yourself with integrity, methods to pump up your power image, and techniques for ethical lobbying and respecting ego and turf with savvy intelligence.
Their ways to use "conversational aikido" to defuse sabotage include: check your self talk, put aside responses for put-downs, use appropriate humor, listen defensively, ask for specifics, respond with firm vocabulary and balanced responses, and rely on the group.
Why We Like This Book
Survival of the Savvy offers executives and employees the tools they need to create a work environment that can make the rest of their work more meaningful and satisfying. By helping people remove the negative aspects of corporate politics and manage their roles in it, the authors reveal a hidden path to organizational success. Copyright © 2005 Soundview Executive Book Summaries
Ken Blanchard, coauthor of The One Minute Manager and Customer Mania!
Seldman and Brandon have years of experience coaching and training at companies like PepsiCo to help executives navigate the complexities and ambiguities of organizational politics with integrity and positive impact. Their practical tips on reading political styles, building a network, and exercising verbal discipline are invaluable.
Michael D. White, Chairman and CEO, PepsiCo International
Finally, a book that speaks the truth about corporate power, influence, and the science of relationships. A must read for serious corporate leaders and, equally important, aspiring leaders!
Jovita Thomas-Williams, Vice President, Human Resources, MGM Grand Detroit Casino
Survival of the Savvy provides CEOs, business leaders, and their teams with vital new insights and essential skills. The authors set the bar at a new height in describing how to effectively understand and influence others and how to ensure a values- based and high-performance work culture.
Edward Ludwig, Chairman, CEO, and President, Becton, Dickinson and Company
Brandon and Seldman, two clever writers, give a lifeline to anyone treading water or trying synchronized swimming in the corporate shark tank...They fill their book with practical, tactical tips to help protect their readers' assets.
Harvey Mackay, author of Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive
Brandon and Seldman tap into the nervous system of corporations and offer fascinating straight talk about a tacit business taboo their writing is engaging, entertaining, and easy to relate to.
Deborah Harrington, National Training Director, Citibank North America
They're not kidding when they say "survival;" even Darwin would have approved of this objective look at the precise intricacies of human behavior. If you take office politics seriously, you'll appreciate the weighty analysis Brandon and Seldman bring to even the most obscure workplace scheming. Brandon and Seldman take on the role of corporate anthropologists, dissecting how office politics work and what you can do to master them ethically.
FAST COMPANY'S READER'S CHOICE AWARD REVIEW, FEBRUARY, 2005
"Ever had an idea stolen by someone brash enough to present it as his or her own idea at a VP meeting? Brandon and Seldman offer serious research to substantiate this all-too-prevalent work problem and outline the many ways the politically inept can develop the savvy political instincts we all need to feel valued at our work."
This is a book about what these two mega-powered business consultants call using "high-integrity" politics as a useful change agent...Not incidentally, through case studies, they analyze self-defense strategies to insulate executives from well-known banditos lurking along the trailway to the top.
BUSINESS 2 BUSINESS, JANUARY, 2005
This work will help employees navigate office politics in almost any kind of setting. Corporate consultants Brandon and Seldman offer practical advice, starting with the assumption that engaging in office politics is vital to one's career. Recommended for larger public libraries and all business management collections.
LIBRARY JOURNAL, November 15, 2004
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Read an Excerpt
Introduction: A Political Wake-Up Call
A Corporate Survival of the Fittest
A corporate survival-of-the-fittest situation does exist, especially in tough economic, competitive, and cost-conscious times. Nobody likes to admit that a company has destructive politics or gamesmanship, but good people can become "squirrelly" in any organization given today's pressures. Naïveté and lack of organizational savvy can threaten anyone's influence, organizational impact, career growth, team credibility, and company results. But we will show you how to overcome any potential political disadvantage by employing high-integrity political tactics and strategies.
For most people, the words integrity and politics don't mix. When we hear the phrases "Politics as usual" or "He's really political," we think of undesirable behavior such as manipulation, backroom deals, self-serving hidden agendas, bad-mouthing, or compromising values to get things done. Such behavior definitely exists, and in twenty-five years of training and coaching thousands of executives, we've had "unspeakable horrors" whispered to us about the elephant in the room -- organizational politics. This elephant has crushed many well-intentioned and capable professionals and leaders.
A major goal of this book is to help you better understand unethical behavior, detect it, and protect yourself and your company culture from it. But we invite you to consider this negative cluster of behaviors as only one type of politics. Here is a broader, more inclusive, and pragmatic definition we recommend.
Organizational politics are informal, unofficial, and sometimes behind-the scenes efforts to sell ideas, influence an organization, increase power, or achieve other targeted objectives.
Notice that this practical definition is value-free and has nothing to do with partisan politics. It is neither inherently good nor bad, neither vile nor virtuous. Two conditions determine whether organizational politics become constructive or destructive:
1. Whether the targeted objectives are for the company's interest or only self-interests; and
2. Whether the influence efforts used to achieve those objectives have integrity or not.
If a high level of political prowess resides with individuals of questionable integrity who seek their own personal gain, ambition, or security, then organizational politics harm careers and companies. But political savvy and skill can also help ethical, competent people sell ideas and influence others for the good of organizations. Here's why we've found it more helpful to define politics in this value-free way:
1. "Don't Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater." If you define politics in a narrow, negative way, you may overlook the value of political awareness and skill. If political astuteness is combined with the right values, it can be a win-win situation for you, your team, and your organization.
2. "Get Off That River in Egypt -- De-Nile!" Negative attitudes toward politics lead to avoidance and denial. At an individual level, this attitude means that you steer clear of the political arena and believe politics shouldn't exist or matter in your career. At a company level, this attitude means that leaders underestimate the reality of overly political behavior and the rotting effect on careers, the company's reputation, results, and its bottom line.
3. "Wearing a Target on Your Back." The costly irony of narrowly defining politics as entirely negative is that under political or apolitical people are even more vulnerable to overly political people combining political skill, pure self-interest, and a willingness to do whatever they can get away with to obtain what they want.
The Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York, is world famous for electrifying performances from star entertainers. Some of these soloists, groups, and comedians got their start at the Apollo's Amateur Night, when novices have a decent chance to win in competition against other amateurs. But there is no "Amateur Night" at the corporation, and the odds are heavily stacked against someone who is a novice in the world of organizational politics. The amateur either defines politics so negatively that he dislikes and avoids it, never developing much political skill, or he denies negative politics altogether, trusting others to do the right thing. When amateurs go up against more politically skillful people, their careers, ideas, and teams are at serious risk. Consider the following real-life examples of the cost paid by defining politics in a rigid manner or limiting one's political savvy.
Amy: Stolen Ideas
Amy is the director of consumer insight for a $3 billion division of a multinational food manufacturing company. Her responsibilities include traditional aspects of market research with particular emphasis on tapping into consumer sentiment. She reports to the senior VP of
f0marketing, who reports to the executive vice president of marketing. Amy is bright, with great technical skills, and can be persistent if she thinks an idea will help the company. Usually, though, she is fairly quiet, polite, modest, and trusting.
The EVP, Sam, is well-known throughout all divisions of the multinational conglomerate. He is charismatic, a great speaker, and perceived to be a true innovator in the company. His personal life contributes to a "rebel" and "maverick" image. He rides a motorcycle, dresses in the style of the MTV generation, and refuses to wear a suit and tie. The senior management team of the parent company ignores his idiosyncrasies because of his results. Senior management across the conglomerate has previously overlooked Sam's reputation for personal indiscretions.
Amy's latest research indicates that consumers want the company to provide larger portions. With this increased perception of value bringing increased sales, Amy feels this strategy will dramatically increase profits. She does not share her excitement about her findings with her immediate boss because he is nearing retirement and she isn't confident that his opinion carries any clout with superiors. Her first two attempts to present her results and strategy to Sam are not successful. In fact, he is impatient and dismissive. Yet, Amy is so sure she is right that she persists and Sam finally agrees to test market her approach. The results are excellent and soon the strategy is rolled out to the entire division. The positive impact on sales and profits is so great that at the end of the year Sam is named Executive of the Year by the conglomerate.
At first, Amy feels tremendous pride and satisfaction that her idea has focused such a dramatic spotlight on the division. At internal meetings Sam credits her research, but Amy starts to notice that Sam often implies that the initial impetus for the research came from him. This becomes even more noticeable after Amy's direct boss, the senior VP of marketing, is transferred to another division. Although somewhat upset, Amy comforts herself with the thought that Sam isn't always precise with words but surely he remembers her insights and persistence. In fact, she expects to be promoted to vice president since she has been director for three years and in several of the other divisions a VP heads her function.
Recently, two events unsettle Amy. One of her peers in another division calls to say he was surprised that at a speech to his division, Sam hadn't mentioned Amy or her research. Jack says that Sam made it seem the strategy was mostly "intuitive." The second disturbing event is that her new boss says he is too new to evaluate her or recommend her for VP, deferring her appraisal to Sam. Finally, Amy meets with Sam in a disappointing, almost devastating session. The bottom line is that while Sam appreciates her contributions, he cannot at this time recommend her for a promotion. He says that she needs to work on her leadership style and personal intensity. He asserts that she comes across as a "nice woman" but not a leader.
Bart: Misreading the Political Signals
Bart is a senior logistics executive who is heavily recruited to join "Suretain," a transportation company. During the interview process both the executive search firm and the head of human resources tell Bart that his skill set and leadership style are exactly what Suretain needs. They explain that the company is conservative and resistant to change. What they feel is needed is a "change agent" who can bring some new strategies and a sense of urgency and accountability. They use terms such as create a performance culture and remove deadwood.
When Bart joins Suretain, he finds it relatively easy to add value. Many existing processes can be improved, and Bart moves swiftly to grab the "low-hanging fruit." His early "wins" and positive feedback encourage him to believe he has a mandate for change. After about two months in the new role, Bart is invited to lunch by Kathy, the head of manufacturing. Kathy is an industrial engineer who joined the company after getting her master's degree and worked her way up, over eighteen years, to the top manufacturing role. Over lunch, she compliments Bart on his fast start but gives him a heads-up about the company's culture. She tells Bart that it's important to realize that it has been difficult for people from the outside to be successful and that the company changes slowly, with many key decisions made over longer periods, after many people's input is gathered and consensus emerges. Also, she cautions him that there are several long-standing, close relationships among key executives and suppliers.
Bart gives Kathy time to finish, but his facial expressions and body language are dismissive. Finally he says, "Kathy, thanks for the education, but you have just reinforced my conviction that this place needs to change. In fact, I've been telling my team that we're going to show the company how things should be done. What I've done until now is nothing. I'm going after bigger targets."
Soon, Bart reviews all the major long-term contracts that the company has with suppliers. He decides to focus on the terms for a contract with the "Henozedaman" company. In a series of meetings, he puts pressure on the president of Henozedaman to reverse certain terms or face removal from the approved vendor list. Bart is unaware that the president and the CEO of Suretain are close friends and jointly own resort real estate. In the next month, these events unfold:
- Bart's CEO receives several letters and phone calls from Henozedaman, all of which are critical of Bart.
- The CEO asks the head of human resources to administer some confidential interviews about Bart's behavior and attitude toward people and the company's culture.
- The CEO conducts a feedback session with Bart and tells him that people feel he is too "adversarial," approaches conflicts in a "win-lose" manner, and bad-mouths the company. The CEO concludes by saying, "Bart, I am seriously questioning whether you have the right attitude or approach for Suretain."
Larry: Wounding the King
Larry is a regional vice president for a national retail-store chain. He enjoys considerable respect in the company because of his solid track record and industry knowledge. Starting at age eight, Larry worked in the business, helping his family, who owned a few retail stores. Because of his long experience, he considers himself an expert in all aspects of finding sites, building, and running outlets. Larry is also very willing to state his opinion, with little regard to the audience, since he's a man of principles.
In the fall, there is a market tour in a city where Larry is visiting potential sites for new stores with two senior vice presidents from national headquarters. These executives are from the Development department, responsible for working with regional VPs to locate sites and erect new stores. On the tour, the two execs are fairly insistent that Larry move forward to purchase new sites. At one location, when they advocate an acquisition, Larry challenges their assessment by raising questions about the demographics of the area and the density of competitors, concluding, "We wouldn't meet our profit targets if we put a store here."
The Development executives push harder, emphasizing the need to grow in this region. This annoys Larry, who says, "Listen, I know what you guys are doing. You haven't even run the numbers. You don't care if this site ever makes a dime. All you care about is your bonus, and that is based on how many stores you can get built this year." Larry doesn't budge and soon the market tour ends uncomfortably.
The senior VPs return to headquarters determined to hurt Larry's reputation and block his advancement in the company. They know that Larry is onto their real agenda, and they want to get some "mud" on him. With the annual human resources planning discussions coming soon, they target Larry's boss, the chief operating officer, and the senior VP of human resources. They plant seeds of doubt, saying, "Larry knows the business pretty well, but he is really rigid and not open to new ideas. He's grown up in these mom-and-pop businesses. I don't think he understands the teamwork you need in a big company."
After the planning discussions, Larry's boss meets with him to discuss the outcome of the sessions. He tells Larry, "Your results have been as good as usual, but unfortunately on some other measures you have low marks that will affect your overall rating this year. The general view in headquarters is that you're inflexible, not a team player, and need coaching on your arrogance."
Sondra: Speaking Truth to Power
Sondra is the finance director for a French division of a multinational sportswear company. She has worked for the company for eight years, solely in France. The strongest impression people have of her is that she is conscientious and tends to keep to herself. In meetings, she doesn't talk often, but when she does, her opinions are precise, well reasoned, and display independent thinking.
Recently, Sondra has done an in-depth analysis of the division's sales and marketing agreements. The findings call into question recent forecasts about the division's next quarterly results and may even have negative implications for previously stated results. Normally, she would report this information to the president of the French division and the CFO of the international division. However, Sondra is hesitant to report her troublesome findings because of these recent observations:
- At a recent worldwide meeting of finance directors, the international CFO said that the company was entering a "sensitive" period and that he did not want any "bad news."
- During this meeting as in others at headquarters, Sondra has noticed an absence of debate and "pushback." Normally outspoken people weren't criticizing or challenging ideas, but they were more candid and forthright in conversations outside the meeting sessions.
- Two months ago, a VP of human resources for the Latin American region had a well-publicized difference of opinion with the international CEO. Sondra has just learned that this HR executive has been pushed out of the company.
- The buzz in the company is that the international CEO is highly regarded by the CEO of the parent company. Most people believe he's a likely successor to the top global job.
Sondra decides that the organization has become too political and she has lost respect for the leaders. In the end, she does not present her findings but instead negotiates a severance package. Six months later, the company has to restate earnings, write off $100 million, and suffers a 15 percent decline in its stock price.
An Individual Wake-Up Call
In our executive coaching and training seminars, we see a steady stream of individuals like Amy and Bart, Larry and Sondra, whose careers have been hurt by political blind spots. They suffer from stolen credit and personal agendas, sabotage and power plays, fear of speaking the truth to powerful people, or egos and favoritism. When overly political people do whatever works to get into positions of power, they can damage competent, loyal people or pillage organizational performance. People often sweep politics under the rug or whine "Ain't it awful?" at the watercooler. Some hope that they can find an organization where politics doesn't exist, so they quit and leave, only to find the same dynamics at the next company.
Others quit and stay -- letting their intimidation or resentment about politics drain their time, energy, morale, and performance. For people who define all politics as unethical and a compromise of integrity, two unpalatable choices face them -- lose out or sell out. The political amateur believes that to avoid being burned he must compromise his integrity and "play the game." The good news is that we have proven alternatives for you. High-integrity political tactics will help individuals, teams, and companies to survive and thrive.
A Leadership Wake-Up Call
Many leaders claim politics aren't important or don't exist. Meanwhile, unhealthy politics stagnate, decay, or destroy their companies. Each day, the newspapers show what happens when low-integrity people with high political skills gain power. They torch finances and reputations, as happened at Enron, Tyco, Global Crossing, WorldCom, the New York Stock Exchange, Arthur Andersen, various mutual fund companies, the New York Times, and others. There are less political organizations, but none have repealed the laws of human nature.
This book does more than provide self-help techniques for getting ahead in highly political work settings -- we're not merely teaching synchronized swimming in the shark tank! Less political people can survive in toxic settings, but they can't truly thrive until company leaders wake up and remove their blinders. Top executives have told us they want to ethically gain power, help their teams achieve greater influence and impact, and even take bold steps to rescue the political cultures of their companies. Becoming a steward for your organization's overall political atmosphere is a provocative call to action. This vision of making organizational politics a personal virtue, career management tool, team development vehicle, and a cultural asset on the company balance sheet is at the heart of this book.
Copyright © 2004 by Rick Brandon, Ph.D., and Martin Seldman, Ph.D.
Chapter 1: Avoid Political Blind Spots
Navigating Smooth and Rough Political Waters
This book is a guide for "navigating the aggravating." Just as ancient mariners used the North Star as a directional marker as they sailed, you hopefully have personal North Star goals that motivate you and keep you on course as you journey through political waters:
- Influence on the Job. You want to sell your ideas and receive credit and recognition -- for yourself and your team.
- Business Impact. Of course, you know you're not paid for ideas, don't you? You're paid for ideas that are implemented and succeed -- achieving organizational impact. We all seek the fulfillment of seeing our ideas and results make a positive difference for our company.
- Career Growth. It's also honorable to want career advancement, promotions, financial reward, and prestige, as long as you don't sell your soul getting them.
The guilt-free good news is that your personal North Star goals also support your company's North Star goals. Your organization needs your good ideas to see the light of day, hopes you can enhance company performance, and wants you to remain a fully engaged part of its future leadership bench strength. It would be counterproductive to your company to allow destructive politics to lead to attrition.
Yet every day, politics can buffet you about. Unless a Star Trek captain has beamed you up to a utopian planet, you probably experience these political dangers:
- Stormy, Changing Weather. This symbolizes the constantly shifting winds of change -- company turbulence, reorganizations, downsizing, new bosses, being a new boss, new initiatives and about-face top management agendas -- all demanding careful navigation through precarious political waters. You need to predict the weather and rechart your course.
- Lightning Bolts. Political jolts include competing agendas, priorities, policies, and programs that strike down your ideas. Besides protecting your ideas, you also pray you won't also be hit by the lightning. You need to protect yourself from political surprises.
- Icebergs. You can hit unforeseen obstacles, such as frozen perceptions about you or your function. You have a corporate reputation -- good or bad "corporate buzz." People sometimes imprison you in a perception based upon a past incident and refuse to update their image even though you've changed. We'll scan the political horizon for these obsolete or accurate icebergs so you can melt them, reshape them, or steer around them.
- Sharks. Yes, Jaws isn't just a scary Steven Spielberg movie. There are predatory people with self-serving agendas. Some take credit for ideas, block good ideas, or sabotage you for personal gain. This seamy side of company life happens, especially in times of fear, economic threat, rampant competition, or the corporate musical chairs of changing jobs.
Political Tip-Offs from Derailed Executives
Executive coaching is sweeping corporate America, but let's be crystal clear about two different emphases within this movement. In progressive companies that prize professional development, coaching is a perk -- an exciting adventure to help talented, high-potential people grow and advance. In physical health, you don't have to be sick to get even healthier. Likewise, you don't have to be in trouble to receive developmental executive coaching.
Other executive coaching is required for "fix-it" or even "fix it or else" scenarios. We've worked with many executives who'd hit a ceiling or were on the way out, and our coaching services were the last resort. For years, career-stalled clients were overly political -- abrasive managers turning people off through alienating, abusive treatment as they clawed their way to the top. Their lack of people skills and disrespectful behavior were now too visible to be ignored.
Now, we're increasingly asked to help under political people who treat others with care and respect, but whose careers are endangered due to little organizational impact. These intelligent, technically capable, company-loyal, high-integrity individuals risk being derailed from their career paths. Some are clueless about politics or refuse to enter the political arena, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Naïve about politics, they lack the organizational savvy and influence to survive in today's fast-paced, high-pressure, downsizing organizations.
The things people say in executive coaching are clues that they have underestimated the role of politics or misread the political climate. How many of the following signals have you experienced, heard about, or seen? The goal of identifying these political tip-offs is to remove any political blinders so that you embrace politics as a fact of organizational life, and to run a reality check.
"I'm Being Underestimated." People bump up against a narrow view of their expertise, talents, potential, or value. They feel pigeonholed or in dead-end positions instead of valued for their broader, strategic strengths. "I just feel like they don't get it. They view me in a very marginalized box instead of treating me like a valued business partner," said one manager. Often, technical or staff people feel like company gofers instead of respected consultants.
"I Got Passed Over." These people are overlooked for promotions -- again and again. Their careers plateau or they hit the glass ceiling that many women executives find in male-dominated cultures. There's a corporate jockeying for position and someone else less qualified gets the job nod. The individuals in coaching can't figure out for themselves the hidden success factors. Maybe it's competence. "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," as Freud observed, but other times it's not. Sometimes political factors are at work, factors you've ignored until now.
"I Was a Victim of Downsizing." Some people sigh, "I wish I had a job to complain about!" They are shocked victims of a merger, reorganization, downsizing, or cost cutting. Why is it that when the corporate dust settles, some people always seem to land on their feet while others get a severance package? We know a president of a large beverage conglomerate who lost his job a week after receiving the second-highest performance review in company history! Every time someone is let go, it's not necessarily because of political dynamics, but often that plays a critical role in the "Why me?" career speed bump.
"I'm Not Sure of the Scorecard." Sure, there are written criteria for evaluation and clear job objectives. But often people report a gnawing sense of not being tapped into what really matters, a vague uneasiness that they're walking on thin ice. People work hard, so this trial-and-error guessing game about the true success equation is unsettling. The company talks about fairness and meritocracy -- it doesn't matter what you look like or whom you know. But some clients helplessly complain, "Bull! The reasons people win and lose are more subjective and I can't figure them out." When managers move higher in their organizations, the scorecard measurement criteria change, just as when a minor league baseball player is called up to the majors. When rising stars are promoted, they're often sobered to learn they've entered a new ball game where the unwritten, unspoken rules may be unclear.
"I'm Not Getting Credit." These people initiated or contributed to a project, but aren't recognized for their efforts or results. Their ideas were successful, but at the end of the day, someone else gets more credit. At an awards ceremony or meeting, others get the kudos and the limelight. Despite being central to achieving targets or forging innovation, they miss out on the rewards.
"I'm Not Able to Sell My Ideas." Often, the person wistfully moans he couldn't get his idea off the ground in the first place. He has ideas that will benefit the company, but is thwarted. He isn't sought out for advice or input, and people don't answer his calls. Sometimes it's a clear "No," but other times the rejection is dragged out through a year of withheld resources. Then at performance review time, he's asked, "So, Jerry, what have you accomplished this year?"
"I've Hurt My Career by Speaking Out." There may not be a manager who doesn't say something like "I want you to know that I encourage healthy conflict. If I'm full of beans on something, don't pull your punch." Phrases like Challenge Conventional Wisdom may be printed on laminated posters, but there's a danger in blindly accepting these proclamations as gospel.
The punitive reaction may leak out subtly -- awkward silences at a meeting as others watch in hushed amazement, a conveniently forgotten invitation to a key strategic meeting, or an appraisal rating that's lower than anticipated. Other times, the retribution explodes in glaring ways -- the person is ostracized or fired on trumped-up claims of cost constraints. Are we advising you to dummy up and become a corporate Stepford wife -- a conforming, compliant, silent zombie? No, but we are suggesting you learn political judgment to avoid these pitfalls.
"I'm Not a Part of Key Networks." These people feel like outsiders without advocates. Do you realize that most of the time when people talk about your career, you are not in the room? We call these unofficial interactions that impact your advancement "impromptu career discussions." Someone makes an offhand comment about you like "Will lacks fire in the belly." "Danielle is really not a team player." "Jamal doesn't have a sense of urgency." "Hank's kind of an empire builder, don't you think?" "Donna's OK, but she lacks intensity. Anyway, what were we talking about?"
That's how quickly career decisions are made about you when you're not around! The off-the-cuff trash talker is often astute enough to use subjective, inferential descriptors that are clear as fog. These labels can't be proven or argued, but they have a way of following you around. We need someone to say, "That really isn't how he is," or, "You have the wrong version of the story," or, "That was three years ago and he's changed a lot." We need a network of allies to let us in on the dirt and to look out for us in informal ways, so we're not at a disadvantage during these impromptu career discussions.
"I Was Sabotaged and I Didn't See It Coming." When this happens, you never forget it. It's like a kick in the stomach. Someone goes after you -- often behind your back. This politics tip-off is so distasteful yet critical that it deserves a second look under a magnifying glass.
The Many Faces of Sabotage
In Oliver Stone's chilling Wall Street, Gordon Gekko (fashioned after real-life financier Ivan Boesky) shamelessly announces, "Greed...is good. Greed is right. Greed works." Many families get along fine until somebody dies. The Journal of Social Psychology reports that 45 percent of middle-class families argue about the estate. If brothers and sisters bring in the lawyers over $50,000, imagine what relative strangers may do when millions are at stake in stock options, golden parachutes, and fat salaries. Now mix greed with the drug of power and sprinkle in a dash of financial fears, and you have a recipe for political sabotage. There are many faces of sabotage -- many types of political lightning that can strike in organizations. The more that corporate leaders allow such behavior, the more toxic the political climate becomes and the greater the erosion of the bottom line.
Someone indirectly hurts you behind closed doors, often so deftly that you're not even aware it's happening.
Gossip, Rumors, and Bad-Mouthing. Predators secretly spread gossip or trash-talk about you, your results, or your actions. If you're in the way of their ambition, they label you "clueless" or "not fitting the company mold." Too clever to go after you on competence, they use an ambiguous label. If confronted, they claim their words were misinterpreted or taken out of context. Any empty apology is too late because the damage has been done.
Planting Seeds of Doubt. Behind closed doors they subtly block you from receiving a key high-visibility assignment -- through a raised eyebrow, a discouraging word whispered in someone's ear, or innocently asking, "Wouldn't Helen be better qualified?" This is always done under the guise of doing what's best for the organization.
Marginalizing. This is a comment that limits you, such as "Barry is such a good salesperson we need his numbers." Barry's now blocked from the headquarters executive vice president job in sales management. Ever had a letter of recommendation that was so bland, so vanilla, that it was actually a nonendorsement? You felt like saying, "Thanks for nothing!"
Indirect sabotage impedes your power or access to resources, slowing down your contributions or eroding your organizational impact.
Withholding Information. Information is power, so if you're out of the loop, your impact shrinks. A fellow money market sales rep knows something about your client's past financial investment strategies but keeps this under wraps. He may be busy or lazy. Or he may be a quiet saboteur trying to stay on top of monthly sales rankings. Maybe you're shut out of a meeting, watching the conference room door close as you're given a polite smile. You know that the meeting will hold the information that makes attendees the "in crowd."
Cutting Physical Resources, Head Count, or Budget. Obstructing routes to essential resources is one way a superior can set you up to fail. It's easy to hide behind a companywide scarcity mind-set, but what if more favored teams don't have to get by with as few resources as you do?
Assignment to Corporate Siberia. A rising star or veteran manager beloved by many is banished from headquarters to a low-visibility job -- political quarantine. This scarlet-letter-tainted exile may be geographical or functional. Organizations all have less glamorous places to be trapped. To muffle the voice of an engineer who disagrees with a pet project, an ambitious but threatened midmanager calls in his chits and pulls strings to get the thorn-in-the-side technician reassigned and branded as an untouchable.
Butt-of-the-Joke Humor. Mean-spirited humor cuts deep, eroding your confidence. A saboteur makes a slur that becomes company lore and brands you as a target. Behind your back, the joke is blown out of proportion and trickles throughout the organization, devastating your career. We knew a chief operating officer on track to be the CEO. He had one bad habit -- saying "you know" during his presentations. One of his peers influenced several in the audience to make tally marks every time he said "you know." They shared their tick-mark numbers over drinks as he lost credibility and became an outsider.
These next tactics are overt. You know they're happening since they usually happen in meetings. At least these ploys are easier to predict, spot, counter, and defuse through this book's countertactics.
Sarcasm and Insults. This most blatant form of sabotage, open name-calling and disrespect, can come from a bullying boss with trademark abusiveness, a cunning direct report who fancies your job, or an unprofessional colleague. Sarcasm is often sideways anger, so the cutting comment may signal resentment about a valid beef with you. But it's sabotage if there's a pattern, and you need to dance carefully to avoid a blow to your credibility and power base.
Fixing Blame. Your image can shrivel if you're the team whipping post or brunt of garden-variety blame by peers. Sometimes a blamer is negative and vilifies everyone. Other times, a saboteur calculates a personal attack because he is covering his tracks and you stand in his way. He may even target you as the preplanned scapegoat at the start of a risky project in case it blows up.
Interrupting, Steamrolling, or Freezing Out. These manipulative tactics are less abrasive, but still discount you and block your influence. The saboteur dominates the discussion so you can't get in a word edgewise. Sometimes she's just a blundering clod at group process skills or her passion for her ideas gets out of control, but other times the lack of a platform for expressing yourself is the product of a slicker, more engineered effort.
Condescending or Patronizing. The sabotage is so sweet you can't feel the knife go in, but the wound inflicts credibility shred-ability! Someone says, "Teresa, you're new, so you'd have no way of knowing, but our norm for customer visitations to headquarters is (blah, blah)..." His voice tone takes on a softer, mock-protective air, like a patient parent helping a faltering child. The saboteur winks at others with a syrupy smile that sends the true message -- you're not acclimated or part of the inner circle. You confront him later to find feigned surprise or hurt s20since he was "only trying to help you."
Testing, Tripping Up, or Exposing. A "friend" ambushes you by publicly asking for help on a thankless, draining task so that you look uncooperative if you decline. He asks you a question to trip you up. You're emotionally loaded on an issue, so he raises the raw-nerve topic to trigger you. A teammate "helps" you with faulty data, equipment, or manpower. He gives you enough rope to hang yourself with a new project he knows you aren't ready to tackle. A peer is conveniently too swamped to help you meet a deadline or keeps mum instead of pointing out a mistake you made.
Are You Cheered Up Yet?
If these accounts of sabotage don't exactly make for nice, light, mellow airplane reading, here are some reassurances about some common reactions to learning these political tip-offs.
- "Isn't This a Cynical View of Human Nature?" The previous accounts admittedly portray a crass view of company life. But we're not actually cynical people. We don't light up a room just by leaving it! Our goal isn't for you to distrust everyone or read negative motives into every situation. It's just that we don't want you to be naïve. Savvy is the operative word here. We want to protect you for the future through awareness, so that you're not at a disadvantage.
- "I'm Not into Politics, but Sometimes I Sabotage, Too." Overly political power hoarders are the usual practitioners, but under political people may also commit sabotage out of revenge or desperation. Victim-generated sabotage is still counterproductive. Please don't beat yourself up if you've sabotaged others. Even if your mom was a travel agent for guilt trips, we invite you to drop the guilt and just let awareness of your own sabotage lead you to avoid perpetuating the problem.
- "Do I Have to Become Manipulative?" Nothing we recommend for entering the arena of organizational politics requires sacrificing your ethical standards. You can choose noble ends to pursue and moral means to reach them. You can hold on to your self-respect as you gain influence and power. That's what we mean by high-integrity political tactics.
A few years ago we realized, "Why wait until people are derailed and need remedial executive coaching to better navigate politics? Let's teach people to be savvy before they run into problems." So we harvested our street-smart concepts for demystifying politics and funneled them into an Organizational Savvy workshop. Participants appreciate the straight talk about a typically taboo topic, welcome their company-endorsed open forum to validate their feelings, and can immediately implement our objective approach to a normally nebulous issue. Now, through this book, which also includes a companywide leadership focus, we'll empower you p0with nonmanipulative tactics for elevating politics from a dirty word to a character virtue and company asset. The first step is to understand the political styles and mind-sets of different people.
Copyright © 2004 by Rick Brandon, Ph.D., and Martin Seldman, Ph.D.
Meet the Author
Rick Brandon, Ph.D., is CEO of Brandon Partners, offering flagship workshops on Organizational Savvy and the Motivational Tool Kit. With thirty years of performance improvement experience, he has trained tens of thousands at companies worldwide, including scores of Fortune 500 companies. He is married with two children and lives in Mill Valley, California.
Marty Seldman, Ph.D., is one of the country's most experienced executive coaches, having had in-depth, one-on-one assignments with over thirteen hundred top executives. His thirty-five-year career includes expertise in group dynamics, clinical psychology, training, and executive coaching. He is the author of Performance Without Pressure and Super Selling Through Self-Talk. Married with three children, he lives in Montclair, New Jersey
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