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by Geoff Hart
Previously published as: Hart, G. 2009. When statecraft fails: tips on surviving "the great game". Intercom November 2009:20–23.
In my previous article (Statecraft: applying the science of politics to office politics), I proposed strategies for building workplace credibility so colleagues and managers will take you seriously and give you opportunities to improve the way things work. That approach works if everyone shares our good intentions and wants to cooperate for the greater good, which will be true for most of our colleagues. Unfortunately, there are always a few bad apples whose only goal is to increase their own power. Many were encouraged by management consultants selling books full of wisdom from historical figures you wouldn't ordinarily associate with management. For example, Sun Tzu and Miyamoto Musashi became popular sources of "management as warfare" advice during the 1970s and 1980s, and Nicolo Machiavelli became the poster boy for "management as manipulation".
Unfortunately, Joep Schrijvers, author of The Way of the Rat, presents an even nastier view: the Schrijvers workplace is a sewer in which rats endlessly compete to defeat each other and seize power. If this book is the "international bestseller" its cover proclaims, thousands of readers have learned to see workplaces as Tennyson's "nature, red in tooth and claw". Disciples of Shrijvers, of whom I've met a few, would consider my previous article hopelessly naïve. Here, I'll suggest some ways to protect yourself against such people.
A note of caution: Schrijvers believes it's idiotic to try using his techniques defensively. In some Dilbertian workplaces, he may be right. Unless you're willing to become a rat yourself, it may be wiser to leave such situations, since even a strong defense is no guarantee you'll escape the attention of the worst rats.
Schrijvers offers three powerful tactics for workplace domination. First, identify all the competing interests and their power sources, including the "courts" in which decisions are made, by observing how your workplace really works. Second, observe more often than you act, and act only at opportune times. Third, learn the many tricks and traps that will win workplace battles, and keep a cool head: intellect must prevail over emotion. Each tactic suggests a matching defense:
This requires a talent for observation and a willingness to observe. It's been said we have two ears but only one mouth, and should use them in that proportion. That's good advice for anyone, but particularly important when there are rats in the workplace.
Shortly after starting with a new employer, you learn there are two sets of rules. First, there's the policies and procedures manual or employee handbook. These formal, written rules codify how managers believe the organization should function, and for many mundane functions (e.g., requesting reimbursement of travel expenses), they're accurate. But there's also a parallel set of rules, never written down and transmitted only by word of mouth or by imitation. Rats follow the first set of rules when convenient, but exploit the unwritten rules whenever it's expedient.
That second set can be more important. When I worked for the federal government, the expense reimbursement procedure was straightforward: copy your receipts, attach the originals to a form, total up each category of expenditure, and submit the paperwork. Some interminable time later, a cheque arrived via internal mail. Before I prepared my first form, I introduced myself to the appropriate clerk, explaining that I wanted to fill out the form properly and minimize her hassle. We struck up a friendship, since unlike many others, I honestly wanted to be helpful. Instead of throwing my form on the pile, she processed it immediately and had my cheque issued within days—in part because she didn't itemize my expenses, and instead gave me the standard per diem rate. When I questioned this, she told me she was willing to process my actual expenses, but pointed out that everyone hated the additional paperwork and that managers looked the other way because they believed this approach saved the government more money in staff time than it cost in payments.
Sometimes it's difficult to know when to follow the official or the unofficial rules. For instance, the government used formal procedures to deal with problems that required intervention from the Human Resources department, but a friend warned me that following these procedures sometimes angered managers, who wanted to be consulted first. One rat taught me that sometimes there's no obvious right path. The first day he became my manager, he shook my hand firmly, smiled broadly, and told me to bring any problems to him: "That's why I earn the big bucks." Charming and helpful, he deceived me completely. When a colleague began causing serious problems for our group, I collected evidence and witnesses to validate the problem. But when my supervisor received this evidence, he grew enraged at being asked to solve the problem. Instead of acting on the evidence, he called me on the carpet and berated me for a good ten minutes, making it clear that if I took the problem to Human Resources, I'd regret it. Having a young family to support and no stomach for a fight, I backed down and let the problem slide.
You can't learn the rules of the game by hiding in your cubicle. To navigate the sewer, you must first learn the layout of the tunnels. Staff newsletters, memos, and meetings announce important official changes that shape our work, but the unwritten rules are only revealed through the connections we develop throughout the workplace. Some workplaces practice open-door management, and let you discuss your concerns with any manager. Others are rigidly hierarchical, and interpose strong barriers between managers and employees. But in any workplace, there are ways to gain access to managers, such as serving on the committees responsible for social activities, computer decisions, or workplace safety and health. Such committees include representatives from multiple departments and typically include at least one manager who approves the group's recommendations or brings them to senior management for approval. Befriending committee members builds a powerful intelligence-gathering network, and keeping your eyes and ears open reveals surprising insights into the currents flowing through the sewer.
The most obvious power derives from your position within the hierarchy. Managers, for example, can command their staff without seeking their opinions. If someone disobeys, managers can discipline them and possibly even fire them. People obey such managers out of fear, and unsubtle managerial rats flex their muscles publicly. Subtler rats use psychology, charm, and a friendly veneer to enforce their will, as they understand that raw power is best reserved for extreme situations, and that consultation and persuasion are more broadly useful. As expert users of words, we technical communicators have more power than our formal roles might suggest, since a carefully prepared, skillfully argued case has power to persuade. But we must remember that the most effective approach varies among people and situations. Sometimes argumentation works best: present carefully organized facts when logic and objective reasoning will be compelling. Other times, persuasion works best: present words that appeal to the emotions and instincts when feelings and subjective assessments are stronger than logic. Choosing the right approach requires knowledge of the best approach for each person you're hoping to sway and insights into how context affects their thinking.
Though unwritten rules are sometimes more powerful than formal rules, don't ignore the formal rules. Official policies and procedures provide powerful ammunition when you need to accomplish something or want to avoid being forced to do something ethically suspect. Few of us aspire to become a rulebook lawyer, but awareness of the rules provides trump cards that might otherwise be unavailable. My rat manager taught me the hard lesson that the written rules for personnel problems would work best, though he moved on before I could test that opinion.
Interestingly, unwritten rules often depend on leaving no paper trail, whereas formal rules can require significant paperwork. When unwritten rules are used against you, creating your own paper trail—what experienced office workers call the CYA (cover your ass) approach—is a wise tactic. "Active listening"—paraphrasing what someone said to confirm your understanding—is a powerful tactic. The CYA version of this tactic involves transforming off-the-record oral communication into a formal memo that reiterates your understanding and requests approval to proceed. (Having a witness to the conversation is helpful, but wily rats won't fall for that trick.) Anyone hoping to manipulate you will resent this tactic, but you can plausibly insist on confirmation that you truly understood their request. If your organization still uses printed memos for such exchanges, store a copy of your memo somewhere safe—possibly even at home—and protect the word processor file so you have a dated copy. If you communicate via e-mail, retain copies of your e-mail. In truly hazardous situations, use the BCC (blind copy) field to send copies of your e-mail to a workplace friend who can subsequently prove that your message was successfully sent. Occasionally, you can visibly CC a memo to another manager affected by your discussion. You won't win any friends by thwarting a rat this way, but sometimes that's a necessary tradeoff.
Speaking of friends, it's essential that you find some. Isolated individuals with no allies are easy prey. But people who like you or owe you favors are likely to help when trouble arises; strangers have less reason to risk discomfort or worse by helping you. Rats form such alliances purely to acquire weapons they can use in future conflicts; you should form alliances because they provide a more pleasant way to spend 8+ hours of your day than living as a hermit. Whatever your reasons, you're stronger with allies than you are on your own, and you can sometimes achieve remarkable things. At a former workplace, I discovered that I walked the same route to work as a senior manager. Rather than walking alone, we walked together, and struck up an informal friendship. That friendship opened his door to me at work, a privilege I took great pains not to abuse, and many months later, when I really needed a favor, he removed some intractable obstacles from my path.
If you keep your eyes open and learn about your co-workers and workplace situation, you'll discover how the currents of power flow, and may even become privy to some of the ongoing power plays. More importantly, you'll gradually learn who you can and cannot trust.
Deal cautiously with anyone who has a reputation for manipulation or power plays. Should they ask you to do something, think carefully before accepting. What might their true goals be, and could those goals endanger you? Do they have reason to protect you from becoming collateral damage on the way to achieving their goals, or might they let you be harmed? (That willingness may not be anything personal. Rats are often chess players who think nothing of sacrificing pawns if doing so brings them victory.) In each case, carefully consider the consequences of your interaction within the larger workplace context. You may find ways to refuse to play their games or to enlist allies who can protect you or even stop the game fast.
Carefully monitor how people respond to you. People who seem reluctant to spend time with you or who are unwilling to engage with you on anything but the most superficial level may be trying to tell you something. People you've crossed swords with or actively harmed while achieving your own goals or trying to survive some rat's machinations are unlikely to help, and may actively undermine you. Learn which allies are strong enough to provide useful help, and which are weak or only fair-weather friends. Whenever you need support, carefully consider whether you have that support, whether this will be an opportunity for someone to gain revenge for an old injury, or whether you'll be leaning on a rotten stick that will snap beneath your weight. Then plan accordingly.
That being said, someone with no reason to like you may still help you because they see a personal advantage in doing so. Even someone you've harmed in the past may help simply because they never embraced the way of the rat and are sufficiently ethical to do the right thing rather than seeking revenge. People are complex and cannot be reduced to simple rules, and treating people as simple stereotypes can lead you far astray.
Most technical communicators are at least somewhat introverted. It's not that we lack social skills or the desire to be social, but rather that the writing and other communication we do for a living tend to be solitary activities. But communication requires two parties (the speaker and the listener), and the best communication involves two-way interactions. In the workplace, we must never become hermits just because we have more work than time to complete it, and must never become so isolated from human contact we lose our ability to communicate with our fellows. As Alexander Pope noted, "The proper study of Mankind is Man." Practicing those interactions helps us to understand our colleagues.
Most people are lousy actors. Anyone can briefly maintain a façade, but only sociopaths (who are mercifully rare) can pretend to be an entirely different person for long periods. If you pay attention, chinks will gradually appear in the performance of even a skilled deceiver, letting you spot their inner rat. Deceptive words are easy to utter, but the ways people act and behave are stronger clues to their true identity. Forming a network of friends and allies is a good strategy in any workplace because it makes work much more pleasant, but these people also become your source of strategic information about potential rats: even the most nimble rat leaves a wake of evidence and victims. Of course, you shouldn't blindly trust even your friends; they're every bit as human as you are, and thus make mistakes, carry grudges, listen to unfounded gossip, and misinterpret what they see. Always seek confirmation before judging someone to be a rat. The reality is often more nuanced than it first appears.
People who are exceptionally charming or who seem to have unnaturally good control of their emotions require particular attention. Most really are what they seem: pleasant, emotionally mature adults with a strong sense of fair play and a mild temper. These are good people to know, because it's refreshing to deal with them after a hard day of dodging rats. But some are skilled deceivers who use charm and emotional control as tools of manipulation.
In a few short pages, it's impossible to communicate lessons that others spend entire books explaining. My goal here is simple and therefore limited: to alert you to the possibilities and encourage you to keep your eyes and ears open. Don't become paranoid, but do be aware. These few tips cannot compensate for a lack of awareness, and they're no substitute for practice and experience. Unfortunately, the learning curve can be harsh, and you'll make mistakes while you learn. But as I did, you can survive those mistakes if you're willing to learn.
Understanding the way of the rat should not lead you to become a rat. Just because others are following nasty rules, that doesn't mean you should too. As Friedrich Nietzsche famously observed (Beyond Good and Evil), "He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster." I've found that you can succeed by following an ethical approach that involves respect and consideration for your colleagues. But I've also learned the hard lesson that not everyone shares that philosophy. Don't spend your days nervous as a mouse, always worried some rat will attack you. Do learn the games being played in your workplace, and watch out for those who may try to use you in those games.
Can you simply refuse to play? Sometimes. Striving for the moral high ground and building a reputation for fair dealing and honesty is a laudable goal, and one I've used successfully in my own career. But I've also learned that not everyone respects this philosophy or will leave you alone. The tips in this article have brought me through an occasional fire unscorched, with ethics largely intact, but I've also occasionally resorted to various degrees of unethical behavior to protect myself or friends. When to make such compromises is an intensely personal decision, but if you learn from what I've presented in this article, you'll have to make that decision less often.
Machiavelli, N. 2003. The prince. <http://www.bartleby.com/36/1/>
Musashi, M. 1974. A book of five rings. The classic guide to strategy. (Transl. by Victor Harris.) The Overlook Press, Woodstock, N.Y. 95 p.
Schrijvers, J.P.M. 2004. The way of the rat. A survival guide to office politics. (Transl. by Johnathan Ellis.) Cyan Books, London, U.K. 175 p.
Sun Tzu. 1983. The art of war. (Ed. by James Clavell.) Delacorte Press, New York, N.Y. 82 p.
"Additional notes on Statecraft and When Statecraft Fails" presents series of responses to questions submitted by readers of this article and its prequel.
©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved