Friday, July 06, 2020

Learning the art of pure selfishness

Why time spent on office politics is time wasted . . . yet often essential for survival.

People are political and emotional creatures. We like to believe we use reason to work out what to do, but this is an illusion. A far more general tendency is to make a decision largely on the basis of politics or emotions, then use reason afterwards to justify what we have already decided. Here’s how it works and why it may increase your stress.
It’s half an hour before official closing time on a Friday, after a hectic week. A customer calls with a complicated, urgent request that will take at least three to four hours to handle. Do you put it off until Monday, even though the customer is desperate for a resolution? Or do you deal with it right away?

Someone who is angry, frustrated, or just feeling low will be most likely to shelve the whole problem until Monday, arguing it is the customer’s fault for waiting until the last minute, or claiming the work will be better when he or she is fresh on Monday. An employee who fears the customer, or the boss’s reaction if the customer complains, will likely deal with the problem right away, but rush through it as fast as possible, even if that means a skimped job. Someone who hopes to make a big new sale to that customer, or is keen to make a good impression on the boss, may stay late to get the job done, or even come in on the weekend to make sure the work is done properly.

In most cases, this kind of decision will be made on a political basis. What will be the political impact of staying late and helping the customer right away? Will it win you “brownie points” in the eyes of some powerful executives (so long as you make absolutely sure they know about it)? Will it be one in the eye for some rival, who has designs on a sale to that customer that you might get instead, if you make the customer happy with you? Can you make it into an obligation the customer will understand they need to repay some time?

Whenever people are faced with a decision without clear guidance, especially in a culture where getting it wrong is likely to lead to nasty personal consequences, they tend to think about what others will make of whatever they decide—powerful others mostly. Will they approve or criticize? Will you trespass on (or be in a position to take over) part of someone else’s turf? How much freedom do you have to make the decision without consultation? Will it be seen as a favor that can be called in later? How else can you use it to your personal, selfish advantage?

All this adds to whatever thinking is needed by the job itself. None of it is going to improve the decision, the way that the job is done, or the result either. It’s a source only of extra, unnecessary concern and worry. It adds to whatever stress comes from the work itself or the deadlines to be met. It even causes additional work. If you decided what to do rationally and simply did it, then moved on to the next task, life would be simpler and less likely to cause you anxiety. But rationality is no protection from office politics, which are neither rational nor concerned with the success of the business. Office politics are about power, pure and simple—and strictly personal power at that.

The basic causes of office politics.

Fear is one of the commonest workplace emotions today. The greater the level of fear in the culture—fear of losing your job, fear of losing your status, fear of being marked down as a troublemaker—the greater the need to worry about the outcome of whatever you do and seek some kind of reassurance or safety. Office politics seems to be able to help. By consulting someone who has influence, seeking protection, or avoiding anything that might upset a powerful person, you can gain a measure of safety and reassurance.

Turn this around, make yourself the person with power instead of the one who’s afraid, and you have another reason to waste time and effort in politicking (In strict efficiency terms, of course, it is clearly wasted). Patronage, the power of advancing friends and protecting them from harm, is the main benefit of becoming politically influential. People who aspire to political power are keen to find ways to use and extend their patronage, usually by offering protection and support to their friends when difficult decisions are to be faced. Conversely, making sure that people are clearly seen to have failed is an obvious way to destroy your rivals and lessen their power.

That’s why office politics play a significant role in many decisions. Each offers scope for extending patronage (adding more grateful people to your circle of dependents), lessening the influence of your competitors, and making you look good in the eyes of people with more power than you have at present.

In none of these cases does the politics assist in productivity, raise profits, add value to the customer, or provide anything else positive. What it does do is help people cope with negative situations due to uncivilized workplaces dominated by macho, power-crazed people. That’s why the most pervasive politics are found in macho corporate cultures, or those where fear has become a way of life.

So long as fear exists, there’s no practical way around this.

All of office politics depends on these three motives: to add to your power of patronage and lessen the standing of your rivals for power; to buy you protection from someone more powerful than you are; or to advance your merit in the eyes of people with greater power. None of these motives is to the benefit of the customer, the organization, or anyone beside yourself. Any loss from a political maneuver is always designed to fall to some real or imagined enemy.

How many talented people are held back, prevented from making a full contribution, or persuaded to leave (or even fired) because of purely political choices by someone? How many wrong decisions are made because they offer personal advantage to powerful people? How much time and money is wasted in activities with no rationale beyond providing an opportunity for playing politics?

All office politics is ultimately stressful and harmful. It is the art of pure selfishness made to look rational. Any organization where it thrives is less a group engaged in a collective enterprise and more a warring, competing, back-stabbing collection of individuals trying to advance themselves at the expense of all the rest. If that’s the culture, standing aside is no real option, since it virtually guarantees that you will be either marginalized, humiliated, or ejected.

That’s the reality of many organizations today, I guess. They complain about shortages of talent, yet frequently act in ways that ensure many of the best people will leave. They cut jobs and slash vital projects to save money, yet allow cultures to grow that waste huge amounts of time and money on political activities. Instead of making sure the best people get to the top, they tolerate systems that reward those who are most politically active and successful, regardless of any other ability.

I am well aware that this is very unlikely to change. Those in power always want to preserve the status quo, since it is their status quo and they are the ones who benefit from it most. Nevertheless, it’s sometimes worth reminding people of what is being tolerated in the name of expediency. A very large proportion of those who leave corporate jobs to set up their own businesses do so to escape the constant politicking. Insofar as that adds to the variety and creativity of the economy, and creates new endeavors, perhaps some benefit is ultimately there after all.

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Wally Bock said...

Great post, Carmine. You've inspired me to go and re-read The Prince.

11:04 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, Wally.

Machiavelli is a good example of someone who didn't really approve of the cut-throat politics of his day, but saw it as a sad necessity.

We haven't advanced too far in 400 years, have we?

11:41 AM  
Wally Bock said...

Today's corporate world and 15th Century Florence have a lot in common. It's worth pondering that Machiavelli was a player, an administrator and diplomat who lost his position after the Medici returned to power. He wrote the Prince on his farm where he retired after being thrown into prison and tortured. The book is dedicated to Lorenzo d'Medici. No fool, our Machiavelli.

7:32 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

No fool at all, Wally.

By the way, have you read "Management & Machiavelli by Antony Jay? It's rather old now, but still as relevant.

8:42 AM  
Michelle Kunz said...

I think even the most "powerful" of patrons is motivated by fear -- fear of losing power. Which is why they surround themselves with those who are dependent and therefore less powerful. It's all a scam.

True empowerment is achieved only through self awareness, self revelation (yes, vulnerability!!!), and empathy. When others know that we understand, don't know all the answers, have real feelings, and rely on others not to keep us in ivory towers but rather to contribute in significant ways to the team effort, everyone is empowered.

I'm for individuals who are unafraid to step forward and begin their own brand of anti-politics by refusing to begin their own little kingdoms to begin with. Power lies with the individual and the unique insight offered with each person's experience and perspective.

I'll stop my rant now. :)


8:50 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Feel free to rant, Michelle. I enjoy a good rant myself, from time to time.

When people say that power corrupts, I think that the very first thing that it poisons is the mind of the person seeking it out.

Once people have some kind of power, they know that others will try to take it from them, so they become almost paranoid about threats. Then instead of making them feel more secure, the power that they have, especially corporate or political power, just makes them more and more worried about losing it.

More than 2400 year ago, Plato said that the only people who could really be trusted with power were those who didn't want it. I think he was right.

Keep reading, my friend.

10:36 PM  
Terry said...

Very very true. It's a big grab for the money bag out there. And the bigger the bag the worse it gets. There is so much cloak, daggers, smoke and mirrors it sickens me. The execs keep slurping at the trough of greed.

10:09 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Sadly true, Terry.

Of course, not every executive is egregiously greedy — that would be a gross overstatement — but enough are to give most of the rest a bad name.

Partly, this state of affairs is due to a system that doesn't allow people to estimate their own ability and worth by any means other than comparing money received.

The other cause is the business media, who glorify leaders in silly ways. Most leaders I have met — and I have met many — are ordinary people trying to do as good a job as they can in positions they are secretly amazed to have reached. They get no training, little support, and are expected to be brilliant every single day.

Since most have no more idea what to do than anyone else, they follow the herd. And, thanks to media hype, they can't admit their problems or ask for help either without appearing weak.

We tend to get the leaders our systems produce, which is sad for everyone concerned.

Keep reading, my friend.

4:25 PM  

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