What I love most about the Hay Festival is the eclectic mix of stories and ideas you can be exposed to in a single day. On one day last week I started in the morning at a talk about Socrates and ended it with a rock concert. In between I learned about how WW2 prisoners escaped from occupied France by crossing the Pyrenees, what Michael Vaughan thinks of the forthcoming Ashes series and the latest advances in neuroscience. I listened to a former Archbishop of Canterbury and the director of the British Museum talk about imagery in religion, watched Simon Schama moan about the teaching of history in schools and saw my daughter getting inspired by the great Michael Morpurgo. And that’s just one day. One of the talks I was most looking forward to was the psychologist Oliver James discussing his recent book Office Politics: How to Survive in a World of Lying, Backstabbing and Dirty Tricks. I read the book a few months ago and found it to be an entertaining study of office behaviour, if not a little worrying. According to James, the only way to thrive in business today is to learn the art of office politics.
He suggests our offices are patrolled by a ‘dark triad’ of psychopaths, Machiavels and narcissists. The psychopaths have no conscience and will do whatever it takes to climb to the top. The Machiavels will manipulate colleagues like pieces on a chessboard, while the narcissists are so full of self-love they’ll offer promotions to anyone who tells them how great they are. Recent research in the US showed that psychopathy was four times commoner than normal in a study of 200 American senior managers, while a British study revealed significantly more narcissism in senior managers than patients in mental hospitals or inmates in a secure prison for violent offenders! While the labels and descriptions may seem a little colourful and over the top, the stories in James’s book (based on real life interviews with office workers) are certainly familiar to us all. What’s more, James insists we all use office politics every day, whether we’re aware of it or not. We instinctively know that we stand a better chance of getting promoted if we can get the boss to like us, and good political skills will increase the chances of gaining that awareness, popularity and trust. Simply by laughing at the boss’s jokes, asking about weekend plans or referring to the fact that we worked late, we’re playing the game. And there’s no shame in that, says Oliver James.
So how do we survive this nasty, backstabbing world of office politics? You can’t beat them, says James, so you may as well join them. According to him, there are four key skills we must learn: astuteness (being able to read the signs), thespianism (knowing how and when to act), networking (carefully nurturing relationships) and sincerity (or, more specifically, the appearance of sincerity). There are some pretty ruthless and unsavoury characters in James’s book but he insists they are real people in real jobs. He also believes they exist in every office, and he’s probably right to some extent. We all understand the term ‘office politics’ and we communications professionals arguably come up against it more than most. We almost certainly play office politics more than we’d let on too. There is clearly a ‘political’ dimension to the work we do and the whole employee engagement agenda is riddled with tactics and behaviours that could be described as manipulative. I’ve even met a few comms professionals in my time with clear psychopathic tendencies! We internal comms people tend not to talk about office politics as much as we should. It’s not the same as culture. We know office politics exists but we tend to work around it rather than confronting it. Maybe it’s time to take it more seriously?