Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Office Politics for the Non-Political

Chapter 9: Paint Your Environment Part 17 (conclusion)

In the last post, I embedded a video in which Harvard Business Review authors Kent Lineback and Linda Hill champion the cause of using politics for good purposes. I know that politics is like kryptonite to many people, in part because politics can be so illogical, unethical, or just plain mean.  But there are ways to play politics without catching an ethical disease.

Politics is about building a network of people you can count on, people who work together for common cause and for mutual benefit.  Lineback and Hill argue that people who don’t play politics associate mainly with friends at work, and therefore have less access to information and allies. In fact, without allies you won’t be able to defend yourself (or your team) from decisions that may compromise your values.

Lineback and Hill wrote a series of great tips for building a network in their HBR article “Stop Avoiding Office Politics.”  Here are two that I particularly like:

  • “Work with others for mutual advantage, not just your own.”  I would add that mutual advantage also means there is something in the exchange for you too. Doing favors for someone without expecting anything in return at work is not a way to build a network, it is the way to become a doormat.
  • “Build ongoing, productive relationships with everyone you need to do your work, as well as those who need you, not just those you like.”  This means that you may need to work with scumbags, assholes, eggheads, or airheads that you normally would prefer to avoid. 

“Dealing with Office Politics” on Mindtools.com gives an excellent overview of the how’s and why’s of office politics. I particularly like the advice for dealing with what I call the Foxes, “people out for themselves and not the common good.” Mindtools suggests that you “Get to know these people better and be courteous to them, but always be very careful what you say to them.”

One person I interviewed used this strategy to good effect. “My conversations with (The Fox) were always transactional – I never mentioned anything personal, because I was concerned it could be used against me.”

If you are like me, someone who isn’t a natural politician, beginning to engage may seem a bit daunting.  My suggestion: First try just one new thing. Little by little, you will start to acquire some chits that can help you shape your environment, and give you more choices.

In the last and final chapter, we’ll explore what life looks life after you’ve busted your corporate idol.

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What If Successfully Managing Workplace Politics Doesn’t Bring Balance?

Chapter 4: Who To Trust At Work Part 18 (Conclusion)

This chapter I’ve shared stories that illustrate how the people at work can contribution to corporate idolatry.  But as the following story illustrates, even the best of people, working for the most admirable of Wolves, are subject to strong influence from both circumstances and the workplace culture.

One senior product manager we’ll call “Jill” had a Fox manager who pushed and pushed in private to get the product out, and then publically pointed the finger at her when disaster struck.  According to Jill, after leading the team for a year “it felt crappy to sit in the room, and watch everyone look to my boss to find a solution.  They acted like I wasn’t there.  But later in the meeting there came this moment when my manager gave me a look that seemed to say ‘what do I do next?’  I looked him in the eye, and although I knew exactly what needed to be done, I said nothing.” And the outcome?  The Fox manager was soon moved to a backwater of the company, while Jill delivered a solution and recovered her reputation.

After that time, Jill was able to manage the politics much more effectively, and while the environment wasn’t exactly supportive, it wasn’t hostile either.  But the story does not end there, because Jill was still in a very poor situation.

Jill’s competition released a product that the customers liked better, and her marketing programs and sales pep talks were not going to change that.  Circumstances were beyond Jill’s control, but she pushed herself to the edge of ruin in a futile effort to regain market leadership.

Jill believed that her heroic efforts could result in a major change in the marketplace.  Psychologists call this the “Illusion of Control.”  I call it another face of idolatry.

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How Do Scorpions, Foxes, and Wolves At Work Relate To Idolatry?

Chapter 4: Who To Trust At Work Part 17

The chapter primarily describes a way to categorize people into Scorpions, Foxes, and Wolves to help you determine another persons motivations and by proxy their values.

Motivated by Strength Weakness Suggested Approach
Scorpion Strict set of ideas Execution & vision Inflexible, polarizing Avoid or exit situation
Fox Self advancement Talking, motivating Poor execution Force them to do more
Wolf Getting it done for self, company, ideas Execution, relationships Too trusting Cooperate, partner

So what does all this have to do with idolatry?  As a reminder, I’ve defined corporate idolatry as the adoption of a value system that puts the company ahead of all else, including your family and your own well being.  And as we saw in Chapter 2, idolatry is defined by actions that do not put people first, and is something one can adopt for personal gain or by mistake.  So really, the SFW system is something to help you determine the degree to which a colleague is following people-first values, and if they are not, trusting them could lead to an increased risk of corporate idolatry.

Lets review some of the stories – Vijay early in his career was misled by a scorpion to submit an incorrect method for tracking inventory, which eventually cost him his job. Had Vijay recognized that it was a Scorpion was making the request, he would have been much less likely to comply and could have avoided the issue.  Plus, Vijay mistakenly thought the company had a value system that would reward people for doing the right thing, when in fact it kept the dishonest person.

We met Liz and Jack who did not recognize the spoor of a Fox, which had negative career consequences, and Harry who did identify a fox and proactively removed him from the organization.  Of course understanding the values of the people you work with is only part of the issue.  In the next post, we’ll meet Jill, someone who masters a fox but remains in a difficult situation.

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Should a CEO Fire Someone For Being Manipulative?

Chapter 4: Who To Trust Work? Part 16

In the last few posts, I have been writing about Harold T. Lobo, a CEO who makes coffee for his employees, and is considered too nice by some board members because he is reluctant to lay people off.  But that doesn’t mean that Harry won’t dismiss an employee if he thinks it is warranted.  Harry shared with me a story about a time he identified a fox in his organization, and how he then dealt with him.

When Harry started as CEO in his current organization, he was quite deliberate in how he evaluated the people, and was careful not to make quick decisions.  Harry described a vice president who initially looked like a star.  “Everything was presented very slickly and efficiently.  But as I talked to people around the [company], I found that he was managing communication both upwards in the organization and downwards in a very manipulative way, so that he retained a lot of power by being the communications broker.  I took action there to actually part company with the individual.”

Note that unlike the wolf in the parable of the fox and the wolf, Harry did not have a probation period, or give the fox a chance to gain the upper hand. In the parable, even after he knows the fox is up to no good, the wolf allows himself to be manipulated a second time, at the cost of his life.

What do you think would have happened if Harry had gone to the VP to discuss the situation and ask for a change in behavior?

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What Happens If You Have a Wolf As CEO?

Chapter 4: Who To Trust At Work Part 14

In the last post, I shared the story of the Fox and the Wolf as the third way to classify people according to their values at work.  The Wolf is a pack animal, who is strong, can get things done, but can be a tad too trusting.  Let me introduce you to one.

“Harold T. Lobo” comes across as smart, confident and open, even about his cockiness that has faded, but not disappeared as he approaches sixty.  Harry has the pedigree to back it up: a thirty-year history that includes a stint at McKinsey and management positions at a string of successful companies.   Unlike some who have come out of consulting, Harry is an effective operational manager who understands what it takes to get things done, and how to set the tone in the organizations he leads.  Harry describes his motivations:

“In a simple nutshell, it’s about making a difference to whatever organization I am in, and feeling that I am being challenged to learn new things all the time. I’ve seen too many people who get to the top of their pyramid and then go into takeover mode.  [They think] ‘I don’t need to learn any more and I know it all.’  But I find myself always learning.”

As the CEO in two different organizations, Harry was quite cognizant of the values he wished to instill in the organization.  The first part rests on good business practice, setting clear goals and following through.  The second part, he explains, is “how you treat people.  I try to treat people how I’d like to be treated myself.”  According to Harry, most important are “the incredibly small things that give signals about your values.”  For example, he abolished his dedicated parking space.  In addition, he arrived early and made coffee for everyone.  Although he didn’t realize it till later, this sent a huge signal.

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