Playing politics at work - take up acting

By Catherine Masters

At work, being yourself can be a risky strategy. Catherine Masters talks to an author who reckons a little insincerity can help you survive in the murky world of office politics

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

Want to get ahead at work? Take up acting. You're probably already doing some acting - or flattery, or lying, call it what you will - so you might as well admit it and learn to do it in the right circumstances with the right people, then do it deliberately and do it well.

The suggestion comes from British psychologist Oliver James, who spent time researching the jungle that is the workplace for his latest book, Office Politics: How to thrive in a world of lying, backstabbing and dirty tricks, published this month.

James, known in Britain as a presenter of TV shows and for his previous book Affluenza, was fascinated to find that being good at office politics is a better indicator of getting ahead than talent. This skill, he says, is essential. And if the office really is full of lying, backstabbing and dirty tricks, he has some advice - learn how to do some of this stuff yourself.

New Zealand's culture of being straight and considerate means we have less need for these skills than other "selfish capitalist nations". But we are still a selfish capitalist nation and make no mistake, says James, we need them.

Sitting on your high horse, feeling righteous and saying "I don't do that sort of thing" is not going to help when the talentless person two desks away gets the project or the job or the pay rise that you wanted, James says.

"That's the point I would make to an ordinary New Zealander. You do need to wise up and you do need to get sharper with this stuff. And yes, that does mean that you need to sometimes pretend to a boss that you think they're cleverer than they are or more amusing, laugh at their joke when you don't find their joke funny, and that requires a certain amount of skill in the performance of it."

If you can't act already, take lessons or join a theatre, he says.

James' advice incorporates everything from acting to ingratiation, favour-rendering, reputation-building, go-getting (assertiveness and self-promotion) and even the occasional dirty trick if necessary.

These are all important because James says you need to be aware of people with three main gnarly traits, who are often bosses and sometimes colleagues, and most have elements of all three.

He refers to them as "triadics". Top of the three is the psychopath. They are cruel and cold and lack empathy. You are best to avoid them but if you can't, then assume everything they are telling you is a lie and be vigilant about what they are saying about you to others.

"Machiavels", his second type, can be calculating, cold and manipulative and suspicious of others' motives. But although manipulative, they are not always obviously so. Some Machiavels can be benign because their game-playing is for the greater good.

The third category is the narcissist, who thinks he or she is more clever, attractive or powerful than they really are. They have a sense of entitlement and a desire for dominance.

Although interview subjects in the book are often from cut-throat institutions - a big American investment firm, for example, and the European Parliament - the rules apply to the largest company, the smallest charity or even a volunteer committee.

James even offers a notorious American serial killer as an example of some of the psychopaths you may encounter.

He once interviewed Joseph Fischer, who, says James, killed 162 people, and he was frightened that if he put a foot wrong he could be next on the list.

Fischer travelled around America and casually murdered anyone who said or did anything he didn't like.

"In a kind of way he's a good metaphor for what they're like, the really psychopathic office people," says James in all seriousness.

The less-educated psychopath isn't likely to get ahead. They'll have a low-level job, but might actually hit someone and get fired.

But the educated ones who have developed some impulse control are a different story. Most chief executives have gone to university and have "learned to smile as they kill".

They express themselves through manipulation of others and rather than shooting someone physically, they shoot their career.

"Now I know plenty of people like that in very senior positions who are psychopathic ... some of them are self-made entrepreneurs so they're the Stalin of their empire and they can send people off to the gulag, so to speak, and just sack people or whatever."

Not all bosses are like this, he emphasises, but because they are traits which can be learned we all have the potential to develop them, so some bosses can progress up the ladder and turn into bullies, while others can remain relatively chummy. But even the nice ones will still sack you.

Hence James' strategies. There are many, but one chapter is dedicated to the importance of acting. Sometimes we deliberately act - for example, when we have a hangover on a Monday morning - but we tend not to put enough thought into how to use acting to get our way, he says.

Elsewhere in the book he emphasises an apparently contradictory idea - remaining as authentic as possible to your real self.

"What you are looking for is a career in which you are as comfortable as possible with the script and the role and lines assigned by it. But even where the fit between the real you and your job is as good as imaginable, there will still be a need for you to be alert and quick on your feet, every day, in working out who you need to be in order to get your way."

But you have to be good at it and aware of what you are doing, and overacting can backfire. James uses the example of "Charlie" from a financial institution on Wall St whose acting was so entrenched he ended up having a breakdown and leaving.

Charlie went overboard. Says James: "You end up feeling completely pointless and empty if you do that all the time but you need to have it in your armoury of options. It needs to be something you can do if required."

Even more important than acting is the development of astuteness, which involves being able to read yourself to see how and why you are reacting, read others to make good guesses about their motives, and read the organisation to see whom you need to impress and who your rivals are.

You can get better at this with practice and there is training which can help. You don't need years on the psychoanalyst's couch but you can undergo some mindfulness sessions, a discipline which makes you more aware about what you are thinking and feeling.

All other tactics flow from astuteness, says James. "It's not about rote learning. You know, which tactic am I going to use now. It's about developing an instinct and realising that these options exist.

"The dirty tricks chapter is more about realising this sort of stuff might be going on around you, it would be very rare you would need to use a dirty trick yourself."

Ingratiation is a no-brainer, he says. It works. If you need something from someone and you can get them to like you by making them feel good they are more likely to give you what you want, so find out what makes the person feel good and find the right way to do that.

Chameleonism, flattery and favour-rendering are the main ways to do this.

Chameleonism is the mirroring of another person's mannerisms and endlessly adapting.

Flattery is strategic praise. It may be inflated and exaggerated or it may be accurate and truthful but it seeks a result, "whether preferential treatment or an office with a window".

Favour-rendering is doing something for others to get them onside or so they'll owe you and cover for you. These skills are more important, James says, because office environments have become worse over the past 30 years.

The dollar is all important, budget cuts and layoffs are rife and we have seen the rise of more brutal office politics.

His message to New Zealanders is "get real." If you think you have never ingratiated, flattered or lied outright or by omission, think again.

You have. Studies show, he says, that people lie in one in every five communications. Mostly these are lies of omission, as when you are on a date and try not to draw attention to your flaws. Working in an office is a lot like being on a long date, he says.

But some of the strategies may not come easily. For example, at what point does "acting" cross over to become plain old "lying"?

James concedes there might seem to be a contradiction in some of what he is saying - that on the one hand there is something abhorrent about the actions of some people, and on the other hand arguing in favour of learning some of their tricks.

"I'm not remotely suggesting that you need to be like this at all times throughout your life in all situations." In other words, don't end up like Charlie. Live in the present and be playful about your acting, James says.

You will be happier if you are authentic and true to yourself as much as you can be, so put on a funny voice and crack a joke.

His key message is about giving people permission to feign a bit of sincerity or do a bit of flattery - you are allowed to.

"That's part of you being authentic. It's authentic for you to use strategies to get that job.

"You're not selling yourself down the line or becoming a fake person if you do it. You're actually being a normal person if you do it."


Game plan for a dirty sport

Among the more dangerous beasts you can encounter in the office jungle are the "Machiavels", as Oliver James calls them - the cold, calculating, manipulative types who ruthlessly pursue their self-interest, hide their true beliefs and resist confessing to their mistakes or lies.

Then there are the rest of us - the non-Machiavels.

While not being emotionless, cunning and conniving might be seen as a good thing, James says New Zealanders who think of themselves as honest and decent might lean too far towards non-Machiavel traits and need to make a few changes to get ahead.

The non-Machiavel scale, and antidote measures, includes:

• Vulnerability to others' opinions. Instead, develop your own ideas rather than just floating along swayed by the last person you talked to.

Wearing your convictions on your sleeve. Doing so makes you vulnerable to your unscrupulous colleagues.

• Confessing fairly readily. Believing that honesty is always a good thing ignores the fact that others may be lying and that you can end up being the mug who is easily exploited. Some white lying is essential in all relationships.

• Accepting others' motivations at face value. The word for this is naivety. While innocence has its merits, naivety is simply failing to grasp what is going on around you, which is childish rather than the child-like virtue of innocence.

• Assuming reciprocity. Deal with the imperfect world you are in and be astute when doing favours. Not all colleagues will return them.

• Believing others ought to act in certain ways. While it's fine to have your own moral code, expecting everyone else to live up to it is childish and egotistical. Never mind "ought"; you have to live in the real world of what actually happens.

• Becoming locked into a single course of action. Feeling all at sea, the non-Machiavel withdraws into inflexible positions on points of principle. This may lead to some winning of battles but nearly always ends with a lost war. Prone to a faith in rationality, you risk excessive idealism about what can be achieved by being right.

• May appear unreasonable in negotiations. Outwitted by more astute and flexible colleagues, the non-Machiavel can become emotional, which is only an effective bargaining tool when done strategically, rather than driven by genuine beliefs.

• Seeking stable environments. Alas, this is increasingly rare in a shifting and unstable economy. You must not expect the modern work environment to provide you with security, unless you live in northern mainland Western Europe. If you are an emotionally insecure person, alas, it may be best for you to get therapeutic help. In many countries today you will be cut very little slack by employers or the job market.

Office Politics by Oliver James - $37.99
(Random House)

- NZ Herald

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