The only way to avoid playing games at
work is to understand the games other people are playing.
I stood at the podium dumbfounded by my coworker’s questions. Yesterday he told me everything I was doing in the lab was 100% correct and today, with my boss and my boss’s boss sitting next to him, he was ripping my research to shreds. He was attacking the very techniques that he had suggested to me literally 24 hours earlier. In fact, I had been following his logic for months and now he was making me look like an idiot in front of a room full of people for doing so. I was confused, and angry, and…confused. Of course, these emotions made me look even more incompetent. The rest of the room smelled blood. Suddenly, I was shark bait. I spent the next 15 minutes having an out of body experience watching myself nod with my mouth open as a dozen people annihilated my overall decision-making abilities. I tried to field everyone’s interrogating questions but it was like swatting bullets with a Wiffle bat. Meanwhile, my coworker sat back and calmly drank his coffee.
One day, during my second year of graduate school, my mentor called me into his office and told me to sit down. “What do you think of the postdoc in our lab?” he said. I was new to the lab so I shrugged my shoulders and said I wasn’t sure. I could tell by the tone of his voice that he wanted me to say I hated this guy. “He’s having a lot of problems; he can’t seem to do anything right” my mentor said. I nodded. “Did you know he’s only here for 9-10 hours a day? He should be working way longer than that as a postdoc…plus, his writing is horrible…and he messed up a big experiment…and he eats the weirdest food at lunch…and…” My mentor railed against this postdoc for a good 20 minutes that day while I listened. This happened at least twice a week for the next month until one day I came into the lab and the postdoc was no longer there. About a year later, my mentor called me into his office and told me to sit down. “What do you think of the graduate student that sits next to you?” he said. Again, I could tell he was fishing for something negative. I ended up saying she’s okay. “I don’t think she’s going to last,” he said “let me tell you why…” For the next 6 weeks, my mentor privately bashed this graduate student in front of me and the rest of the lab until, one day, I came into work and she wasn’t there. Six months later, the same process started all over again, this time with a graduate student that was only one year ahead of me. That’s when it hit me. Wait, once he kicks out this student, who’s next?
Politics Predict Job Performance (Like It Or Not)
Political skill is your ability to understand others in your working life. Several studies have shown that regardless of your career path, political skill proves to be the best overall predictor of job performance. In fact, political skill surpasses even intelligence and personality as a better predictor of career success. This research has been shown to apply to people in upper-management positions as well as employees in lower-level jobs that don’t require much personal interaction. And whether you like it or not, most people believe that playing office politics is important. A study of 400 U.S. workers found that nearly 60% of workers believe political skill is at least somewhat necessary to getting ahead. In other words, when it comes to advancing your career, understanding office politics is more important than anything else, and, the majority of the population knows it. But that doesn’t mean you should turn into a sleaze ball or a paranoid basket case. It simply means that you should spend some time increasing your political intelligence.
A few slight changes in your perspective and approach could have dramatic effects on your career. For example, if you are treated unfairly by a coworker, one study showed that your peers and superiors are 3.5 times more likely to help you if you ask for feedback on work quality versus asking for feedback on being mistreated. And they are 16.5 times more likely to help you if you ask for feedback on the dynamics of your working group as a whole.
Hate The Game, Not The Player
Political games take an emotional toll. Understand that office politics can turn cubicles into fox holes and conference rooms into combat zones. The truth is, everyone is working to position themselves ahead of you. Strategy and social hierarchy will always play a role in business in entrepreneurship. As a result, people will always play political games with each other in offices, laboratories, classrooms, and even online. Whether it’s by backstabbing, sandbagging, power grabbing, gloating, gossiping, torpedoing, manipulating, controlling, villianizing, grandstanding, finger pointing, sugar coating, idea stealing, showing up late, withholding information, giving wrong information, or other types passive-aggressive behavior, sooner or later someone is going to play office politics against you. You don’t have to play the game to get ahead, but you do have to understand it. In other words, you have to know what is working against you. You have to know what to avoid. Avoidance and ignorance don’t mix. Refusing to acknowledge the political games going on around you will result in things blowing up in your face at the worst possible time (like when you’re giving a presentation in front of your boss). By taking stock of the games other people play, you can keep from getting emotional and keep your career moving forward.
Sometimes being nice is not enough. You can win most political battles by being nice, focusing on solutions, staying positive, and avoiding negative people as much as possible. But every now and then, the going gets tough. Maybe a coworker stops pulling his weight on purpose, leaving you high and dry. Or maybe you get singled out for destruction by someone who has power over you. What then? When war breaks out, you can sit back passively and do nothing until you’re given a pink slip, or you can fight back. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you create drama for no reason. It means that you stay one step ahead so that other people’s drama never affects your work. Here are 3 ways to proactively fight back when you are facing a tough political attack:
1. OFFENSE: Sandbagging OR Gloating. DEFENSE: Praise.
I sat in a room full of 60 people, dressed in an uncomfortable suit, watching the Dean of the Medical College check his watch every 30 seconds. I was waiting to defend my Ph.D. thesis, which involved an oral presentation followed by a few hours of justifying my research to a panel of five doctors who were trained to pick apart my logic. The only problem was my mentor had to officially introduce me before my defense could begin, and he was no where in sight. My mentor and I did not get along well during the end of my graduate career and he had fought hard to keep me in school. Five minutes went by, then 10, then 15. Things started to get awkward. I felt like a groom waiting for the bride to arrive. Finally, he arrived. He walked up to the podium uncomfortably and said “Sorry, I needed coffee, I’d like to introduce Isaiah who will be talking about…” After my mentor introduced me, I stood up, thanked him profusely, apologized for the late start, and began my presentation.
Sandbagging and gloating are the most common political offenses you’ll face in the office. Sandbagging is when someone at work, either a colleague or manager, does not perform their best on purpose. They hold back results, give misinformation, show up late, or promise help that never arrives. In today’s work environment, outward aggression is frowned upon, yet, people still have aggressive impulses. So, most people have learned to go underground, attacking their targets passively. These passive-aggressive attacks take on many forms, but most commonly, people will try to offend you by giving you less than their best or by gloating when their best is better than yours.
When someone sandbags you, your only option is to take responsibility and then praise the sandbagger outwardly while you distance yourself from him inwardly. Most people make the mistake of trying to call attention to the sandbagger’s actions. They engage the sandbagger and complain to their colleagues and superiors about the sandbagger’s behavior. “It’s not my fault” these people say “Bob didn’t come through for me.” This never works. Understand that sandbagging is so passive that it’s impossible to put a finger on. Any energy you spend trying to set a sandbagger straight is wasted. And, it makes you look weak. A better option is for you to take the blame and praise the sandbagger. Praise his efforts both sincerely and openly. Find something good in what he did and let everyone know about it. This does two things; first, it covertly moves people’s attention off of you and onto the sandbagger, and second, it subconsciously forces other people to consider whether or not the sandbagger’s actions were in fact praise worthy. Before long, people will be asking themselves, “Wait, did Bob really do a good job here?” Finally, once you’ve identified a sandbagger, don’t let him fool you twice. Praise him outwardly but inwardly cut yourself off from ever relying on him for anything again, even if it means you’ll have to work twice as hard.
Gloaters are very similar to sandbaggers in that they fight passively against your success. The difference is that sandbaggers want to pull you down from below while gloaters want to push you down from above. For example, every 6-12 months, a couple of people I went to college with will send me a text message or an email telling me about all of the amazing things happening in their lives. The only time I hear from these people is when they’ve accomplished something “amazing”. Their messages always end with “So, what’s going on in your life?” The funny thing is, I was never really friends with these people. In fact, they were always kind of competitive with me. I used to get really annoyed and depressed by these messages. I would think, “I can’t believe Barry is doing so well!” Then I would write a really long message back trying to justify how well I was doing. What a waste of time.
Eventually, I realized that these people were merely gloating and keeping tabs on me. They were trying to push me down and stay one step ahead of me at the same time. By engaging and trying to one-up these people, I was giving them my energy and encouraging them to contact me again. Now, whenever I receive one of these gloating messages, I praise the person sending it. I tell them how “amazing” they are and how happy I am that they shared their accomplishments with me. I say every positive thing I can think of. And I really mean what I say. I do want them to succeed. I’ve come to realize that other people’s success has nothing to do with my success. Of course, soon after doing this, I stopped receiving text messages and emails from these people.
2. OFFENSE: Villainizing, Torpedoing, OR Gossiping. DEFENSE: Collection.
One of the first companies I worked for after graduate school hired someone whose sole job, seemingly, was to cut the fat out of the organization. Within a few months of his hiring, 5 people either quit or were let go. This person’s process for getting rid of other people was always the same. First, he would villainize them. He would badmouth their behavior, gather dirt, and build a case against their performance. Then, he would start to torpedo them by presenting the case he built up to the boss and other people in charge. One by one employees kept disappearing. Until, one day, this person found himself on the chopping block. “How did I end up here?” he must have thought. After only a year of working for the company, he was let go.
If you help cut away all the fat around you, guess what – you’re now the fat. At first, villainizing other people at work might seem like a good idea. If your boss doesn’t like someone, it might seem like badmouthing them will help you build rapport and give your career a much needed boost. “Whatever keeps their negative attention off of me!” you might think. The problem is that all villains are eventually vanquished or vindicated. And once the villain hat is removed, it’s someone else’s turn to wear it. Will it be you? When you engage in negativity, you invite negativity. When you help villainize someone else at work, you make it that much easier for other people to villainize you. It’s a losing game and the house always wins.
The next time you see someone else being villainized, think as far ahead as possible. Sure, villianizing this person might help you get ahead in some small way. It might even help you get a little closer to your boss or colleague. But what then? Villainizing other people and engaging in gossip is always a mistake. And it’s extremely shortsighted. If you encourage these kinds of working conditions, it’s only a matter of time before you yourself become a target. When someone is being villainized, whether it’s you or a colleague, your best course of action is to start collecting information, connections, and results. Stay focused on being productive and seeing possibilities. First, keep a record of everything, including emails, daily activities, meetings, and personal interactions. Trust me, the people against you are doing the same thing. Second, build up your connections. During tough times, most people make the mistake of isolating themselves. They feel villainized so they exact revenge my receding further and further until eventually they’re the office recluse. Don’t do this. Instead, be even more lively, more gregarious, and more positive and productive. Third, put in work. Get results. Don’t focus on the emotional problems swirling around you. Let everyone else play games while you get data, drive sales, and crush the competition. And, while you’re at it, set up a few interviews with other companies. Finally, if it’s someone else that’s being villainized, don’t avoid them and don’t add to their destruction. Instead, help them take the above steps. Don’t worry about being seen as guilty by association. Helping other people, even people on their way out, never looks bad.
3. OFFENSE: Playing The Victim. DEFENSE: Create A Void.
Guilt is a political weapon. When you do something wrong, you will feel guilty. This internal conviction will drive you to fix the mistake. Most positive and productive workers have a strong sense of right and wrong. This moral code helps keep them on task, working hard for their company, their families, and themselves. The problem is that this moral code is often used against them. By playing the victim, other people can manipulate you into doing things for them or they can manipulate your superiors into forcing you to do things for them. In this way, people who play the victim can reverse bully you into getting what they want. The only way to counteract this kind of behavior is to gain distance. Understand that people who play the victim are starved for attention. They cannot handle the weight of their own responsibilities at work so they will manipulate you into carrying the weight for them.
In The 33 Strategies Of War, author Robert Greene tells the story of Napoleon Bonaparte’s disastrous invasion of Russia 1812. Rather than engage Napolean in battle, the Russians offered almost no resistance. They simply retreated further and further into their country. As Napolean’s army marched deeper into Russia, they became increasingly agitated, desperate, and weak. Without battle, Napolean’s army had no victory, no direction, and no plunder. Napoleon made one rash decision after another, pushing his weakened army forward in an attempt to illicit a response from the Russians. By the time he reached Moscow, his initial force of 450,000 men was reduced to 100,000. Napoleon was defeated by nothing. He was defeated by a void.
Victims abhor a void. Without attention, victims can’t survive. Without a target, victims can’t move forward. People who play the victim at work need you and your attention to channel their frustrations and failures onto. They need you to blame. This gives them energy and direction. When you disappear, you force these people to carry the full weight of their troubles. Creating a void is your best defense against people who try to sway you one way or another using guilt rather than logic. When faced with someone who continues to play the victim, your best defense is to disappear from the situation entirely.