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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Does Avoiding Office Politics Mean Abdicating Your Power and Responsibility?

Chapter 9: Paint Your Environment Part 16

When I first entered the corporate world, I was under the illusion that I was above politics. I did excellent work, and thought that data and passion for the customer would carry the day. I explained my philosophy to a new mentor over lunch, at a time when I was looking for answers to my crazy life.  I think my exact words ended with “I don’t play politics because I don’t need to.”

He laughed.  “Ok,” he said after taking a sip of coffee. “You may think that, but I assure you that others in the organization don’t think that way.”

Boy was he right.

If you’ve made it this far through the book, you probably realize that I’ve grown up quite a bit since then.  On some level, I knew about the people who I now call Foxes, manipulators only out for themselves.  But I failed to recognize that sometimes a Fox has power, and makes getting more power a priority.  (In this post, I share an example of A CEO firing someone for being manipulative.)  I, like many others, viewed politics as inherently manipulative and bad.

Eventually, I woke up to the reality that politics exists in every company. In good companies, politics revolves around competition between groups for resources, or differing views on business strategy.  In unhealthy companies, politics is about ego, empire building, and gets very very personal.

By not playing politics I was abdicating some of my power, and thus unable to  effectively do my job or set boundaries around my home life. I was severly under-gunned when I was attacked by a powerful Fox.

Politics is a tool, and like any tool can be used for good or ill.

As a prelude to the next post, I highly recommend this video. Harvard Business Review authors Kent Lineback and Linda Hill champion the why and how of using politics for good purposes. A bit dry buy very informative, especially the first few minutes.

What is your  experience with office politics?

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Don’t Let Perception Overshadow Your Productivity

Chapter 9: Paint Your Environment Part 12

My last company had a thing about slackers.  In a performance review, I was told that my career could be slowed because I was perceived as a 9 to 5er.  Five minutes earlier, my manager told me that I got more done than anyone he had ever met.

This was a cultural issue – there was a regular review process that evaluated people in two dimensions – the quality of work and suitability for promotion.  In practice, the second dimension was a proxy for who showed up the most. Yes, I left at 5:30, but why did that matter when I was getting so much done?

In hindsight, I made too big a deal out of my life outside of work.  For example, I always told my manager whatever kid activity I had done the previous weekend, and let him know that I would be leaving work early once a week to coach soccer at 3:30.  He told me that I had trained him not to expect an answer to his Saturday emails until Monday morning; he admitted that he was surprised that he was ok with that.  Yet in spite of my productivity, the company had me in the “not committed” column.

My only regret is what I said, not what I did. My highest priority was time outside of work, and I had as much as I needed.  But, I should have talked less about the kids and more about what interested my manager – how hard I was working to make the numbers.

As we saw in the last post about ROWE, revenue at Suntell went up 185% in the two years after employees were given the freedom to decide when to come to the office.  And while my company was very unROWE, the flexibility that I took for myself helped make me the most productive person there.

In the next post, I’ll tell you how to do it.

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You might also like Why Work More Than 50 Hours Per Week?

Should Success Be Based On Results or Politics?

Chapter 9: Paint Your Environment Part 11

It really isn’t the same everywhere.
For example, some company cultures tend to drive people towards unethical decisions[i] (More here).  In an analogous way, some company cultures drive people more towards corporate idolatry. Employees are expected to “do what it takes” to meet deadlines, and to sacrifice their personal time if the boss asks. I believe that a company with a Results Oriented Work Environment (ROWE) has a lower risk for corporate idolatry.

The philosophy behind ROWE is simple. Employees are responsible for results. How they get there is up to them, completely.  Employees are given the freedom to decide when to come into the office, and how best to meet their objectives.  Daniel Pink argues that ROWE is effective because it provides employees autonomy, i.e. control over their environment, which is intrinsically motivating.[ii] This testimonial from an employee at the GAP, a ROWE company, seems to support that notion.

ROWE has been such a huge support and peace of mind. It allows me to not feel guilty when I need to take care of personal issues. I always meet my deadlines and find alternate time to complete my work.”[iii]

ROWE was developed by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson when they were in the HR department at Best Buy.  Now, they are consultants and speakers, helping to bring change to hundreds of companies.  I am skeptical about an individual’s ability to change a company culture.  But Ressler and Thompson present a way to make it possible, with a website filled with business cases and slide decks to help you justify a radical change to the way your company operates.

In one example, Suntell, a company that sells loan risk management software adopted a ROWE strategy.  They implemented a VOIP system that allows employees to work from anywhere, which saved the company 7% in phone expenses.  Many employees decided to work from home, which allowed the company to save 30% on rent by moving a smaller office .[iv]

ROWE is generally structured for departments or companies to adopt, but there are principles that can help individuals regain control of their time as well.

[i] Bad Apples, Bad Cases, and Bad Barrels: Meta-Analytic Evidence About Sources of Unethical Decisions at Work.  Kish-Gephart JJ, Harrison DA, Treviño LK. . J Appl Psychol. 2010 Jan;95(1):21

[ii] Drive by Daniel Pink.  Riverhead Book (2009) P 84-85.

[iii] Results Only Work Environment Case Study: GAP

[iv] Results Only Work Environment Case Study: Suntell

How To Redefine “What Is Best For The Company.”

“Office Space” Movie Night Party via Bashionista.com

Chapter 9: Part 10

Ever hear the phrase “we need to do what is best for the company?”  What was the context?

Was it someone explaining to you your basic job responsibilities, or was it someone justifying an unpalatable decision?

I asked the people I interviewed about the phrase “the good of the company.” Hare are answers from two leaders I respect and introduced to you earlier in the book.

Remember Harry T Lobo, the Wolf CEO from Chapter 4, who struggled in a toxic environment in Chapter 6?  Harry feels that it is his job to do what is best for the company BUT  he focuses on what is best in the long term.

Harry told me that one of the things he found difficult in his time at the toxic culture was the incredible pressure at the end of the quarter, when  “60 percent of revenue came in the last 48 hours.”  The sales team was incentivized to do crazy deals to pull business forward, which in the short run helped maintain the stock price. In Harry’s opinion, this built a “house of cards” because it was that much harder to make the number the following quarter.

Another admirable leader we met was Janet “power mom” Wolf in Chapter 7.  Janet told me of a situation where site closures were explained to the remaining employees as a positive step because they brought various product development teams together in house. Closer coordination would get products to market more quickly, and thus better serve customers.  Janet  had visibility to the decision making process of those senior to her, and thought the layoff was more about cost savings, combined with an arrogance that the other sites, brought in by acquisition, were not as good.  Janet told me that executives made comments like “what do those people do all day?”

Janet did not think the loss of the personnel and expertise would  benefit the company in the long run.  The company did not offer any relocation packages, which in Janet’s opinion “spoke volumes” about what the executives thought of the people.

The lesson here is that even in a toxic culture, there are leaders who define “the good of the company” in terms of the long term interest and who value people.  The trick is to find these leaders, and the pockets of relative calm and sanity they can provide.  For example, Janet  talked about how she tried to shield her team from the buffeting from the top.

When I was caught up in my corporate idolatry, I would never have considered certain positions because the products were not cool or important enough.  But as work because less important to me, I became more open minded, and was delighted to get a job out of the limelight.  There was less stress, and I had the bandwidth to focus on health and family.

Who are the leaders in your company who seem to focus on the long term?  Have you ever considered working for them?  Is there a department that in the past seemed too boring that is work considering?

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