“The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies.” Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience
To someone who’s never been targeted for workplace abuse (or imagined what may occur when good people feign ignorance), destructive office politics may seem unbelievable – something like a Grimm fairy tale with a 21st century spin.
This is because when we think of “work” we conjure images of racing toward deadlines, productive project discussions, and collegial, light hearted banter. Most people don’t give adult bullying much thought. They consider it childish antics which affect preschool children, trifling matters not worthy of managerial attention.
But this scenario could not be further from the truth.
What you may encounter at the office is a cage fight. Some workplaces are remnants of the Wild West, frontiers of incivility overrun by outlaws who impale their coworkers, attacking them from behind closed doors – and more recently with high-tech means.
In college curricula this is rarely explained. No one tells us there is a seedier side to multinational companies, a rank underbelly which may be teaming with malcontents, despots, sociopaths, and narcissists, along with a glass ceiling so thick it would take a neutron force to shatter. Not until you’ve been admitted to the club are you introduced to power plays and surreptitious gamesmanship that could make your hair stand on end.
In What they don’t Teach you at Harvard Business School, McCormack provides advice on how to “fit” within the organizational landscape. Equally important is vigilance against co-worker greed, opportunistic power plays, backstabbing, and office weasels (e.g., those who make themselves look better by attempting to make you look bad).
When placed in environments they perceive as zero sum games people may, not surprisingly, behave in a self-centered fashion. Below are some tips to protect yourself from office predators:
- Avoid being too “nice.” The problem is that some co-workers equate this quality with “pushover,” and with a subsequent opportunity for exploitation. Before going out of your way for a peer, observe their own beneficence:
(1) Do they make friends with a majority of their colleagues, or are they instead perceived as “boss barnacles?” Hangers-on are uninterested in anyone unable to provide advantage.
(2) Do they have a record of lending help, or are they on the lookout for “helping hands” – especially those junior in status, to purloin?
(3) Do they brag about themselves – or do they congratulate, reward, and recommend other people? The self-centered think that reciprocity is a waste of time.
- Develop a rock solid reputation. This requires offensive, as well as defensive tactics. Proactively communicate with all parties who have a stake in mutual outcomes (in writing), and copy relevant individuals to ensure that everyone is on the same page. This tactic deprives office politicos of ammunition, while at the same giving you an alibi. Keep hard copies of electronic interchange if you suspect there may be a problem.
- Become a known commodity! This was one of the best pieces of advice I received in the doctoral program. Networking with professors, showing up at events (both formal and informal), proactively making appointments to speak with mentors, initiating projects, and volunteering to discuss papers at Friday afternoon brown bag presentations helped others become acquainted with my personal “brand.” In a related vein . . .
(1) Volunteer. Not just by performing perfunctory gestures. Demonstrate your willingness to go the extra mile through chairing or serving on a committee; e.g., United Way, annual golf tournament, charity fund raiser, community project. Feeling good about yourself comes with the added bonus of interacting with organizational power players.
(2) Get Publicity. Are you communicating with media relations and editors of your in-house publications? These activities benefit not only you, but your entire firm when press releases morph into social media postings, radio, television, and newspaper stories. New and different ways of doing things (along with noteworthy accomplishments) may be considered newsworthy. It’s more difficult to “ding” someone whose reputation and achievements are on display.