The greasy pole, by MachiavelliAt work, beware the person who never complains about office politics. Such a person is likely to be a master strategist who knows all the rules of the game ― and one of the first is that complainers never win.
In Korea, personnel decisions are announced at the end of the year and that means it’s time to seek advice on office politics from those who have survived and prospered.
It is said political behavior in the office is similar to sex. It’s something everyone has on their mind but few people want to discuss. And of course, we have double standards. If other people play the game, they are engaged in conspiracies and gossip but if we do it ourselves, we’re engaged in strategy and communication.
“Political behavior is neither good nor bad, but a reality of life,” said Mary Macintyre, an American office politics consultant. “If it is well employed it can be an efficient tool to bring individuals and organizations success. That’s why companies value the ability to play politics and read situations, as well as an ability to do the actual work.”
Exactly what it means to be political is open to debate. As far as office life is concerned, Florentine philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli may have said it all in his short treatise on politics, “The Prince.” Written in the 16th century, the book should be in every middle manager’s desk-drawer, if only for this quote: “Men rise from one ambition to another: first, they seek to secure themselves against attack, and then they attack others.” Here is the modern day version,“(office politics) means (being) influential. Regardless of position, it means someone who is able to sway other people to get things done.” This was said said by a former chief executive officer at Samsung Group, who added: “Even if on the same mid-manager level, a successful person is someone who knows how to get his own proposal prioritized. Even if difficulties arise at the company, he is the one who is most sought after and survives big changes.”
The office cannot be survived without a thick skin. “First of all, people should understand that the world is not fair,” said Gu Bon-hyeong, a business consultant. “Nobody likes someone who always complains about how wrongly he has been treated. Smart people pay attention to the power of influence rather than fairness.” Machiavelli could not have said it better. He would have also admired Cho Gil-seon.
“When I first become an executive and was promoted to a new post, I was openly harassed by the president and a secretary, who was his lover,” said Mr. Cho, the first Korean to become an executive at Oracle. “I was about to go crazy, but I made up my mind to respond with a flawless performance. After becoming the best salesman, one day I was told I was going to be a vice president.”
But endurance alone is not enough. Reputation must also be protected at all costs. “When I heard a department head said I was industrious but had poor health, I felt like I was dead,” said a manager at SK Telecom. “Because I knew that a negative opinion, however tiny, could destroy me.”
Those who are politically competent also say it’s important that players control their emotions ― true intentions must be hidden, intelligence should not be too overt, unpredictable behavior is essential, and majority decisions must be supported even if one has a different opinion. In short, one must have a good poker face. However, in a well established company, it is dangerous to be overly sycophantic.
“Kissing up to the boss means instant downfall,” said a chief executive officer at LG Group. “Bosses always change. So I was always faithful to this one particular boss, my mentor. I followed him rather than the hierarchical order,” he said.
In the office, everyone will have enemies, and a lot can be learned from them. An enemy is likely to be most aware of a competitor’s weaknesses. Keep friends close, but keep enemies closer.
Even though office politics sometimes involve dirty tactics, there are ethics to be applied: Advancing one’s own position through acts that damage your company’s prospects is unlikely to work well over the long-term; selfish and mean behavior will lead to the same from others; if one loses the support of colleagues, your future will be bleak. But above all, do not let others know your ambitions. Or, as Machiavelli said, “No enterprise is more likely to succeed than one concealed from the enemy until it is ripe for execution.”
Strategies for senior level managers
“What is common among successful executives? Kindness, excellent communication skills and an irreplaceable specialty,” said a manager who works in the strategy department of a large company in Korea.
Top officials have a variety of advice for success. “For executives, communication and mediation skills are more important than special abilities,” said a vice president of a consulting company. “A new executive I know was given a type of work he wasn’t familiar with. I thought he was going to be flustered. But he assigned content development tasks to his juniors and met related department heads to make it work. He reflected other people’s advice in the result and those who gave the advice knew their comments weren’t wasted,” he said.
People should be careful about promoting themselves, unless their claims show up in reports by others. “Words spread fast. There is no need to speak about it. Some bosses are especially hostile to juniors who brag,” said an executive at LG Group.
“The best self-promotion strategy is to have compliments conveyed by important people from outside the company,” said an executive at SK Group.
And employees with ambition must be careful to exercise self-restraint, even in unlikely places. Inside the company, even a story of talking loud in a restaurant can get around. Reputation is critical in personnel decisions.
“A few years ago, my boss seemed to be concerned about me taking bigger roles and tried to get me sacked. But those who heard my boss speaking ill of me called me right away and told me all about it. They were angry too. Of course, I didn’t say anything to my boss. In the end, I was the one to survive,” said an executive at a conglomerate.
What if someone is naturally passive? “Political behavior is part of work,” a business official said. “For example, drafting a good proposal is not enough. One has to make it work.” And that requires some measure of aggression.
Strategies for juniors
The question for junior employees is whether to play politics at all. Senior executives often say it is better to avoid making political moves at this level.
For example, a mid-level manager at a trading company, identified only as Mr. Kim, 34, was disadvantaged because he played politics too much. He was a leading candidate for a position in an overseas office. He explained item by item to his boss as to why he should be given a chance to be stationed outside Korea. In the end, he slipped up ― the boss became annoyed by Mr. Kim’s pestering. His colleague, who was rather quiet and known to be industrious, took the position instead.
“These days it is clearer who has done what. Making political moves can be a minus for junior level employees,” said Gwon Chang-hyeon, a manager at an Internet company.
However, being too indifferent to office politics is damaging. “We have a junior who is a little arrogant to his seniors because he has skills others do not have,” said Mr. Jo, 40, a department head in a logistics company. “I am going to ask the personnel office to move him to another department.”
A good way to keep a balance between playing politics and being indifferent to the game is to manage outside contacts. A mid-level salesperson known as Mr. Kim, 39, is not particularly close to senior managers. Even so, he was promoted faster than his colleagues. “I was nice to people outside the company who I met while I was working as salesman. I think they told seniors executives in my company good things about me,” Mr. Kim said.
“Junior-level employees should bet on their ability rather than connections,” said Kim Ki-tae, the head of Career, a recruit information company. “Rather than being close to a few people, it is better to get along with people all around.”
Or, better still, take the advice of Britain’s most famous manager, David Brent, from the TV show “The Office.” His suggestions are simple: “If at first you don’t succeed remove all evidence you tried,” he said. “Eagles may soar high, but weasels don’t get sucked into jet engines.” Machiavelli could have used that advice ― his own ambitions led him, in 1512, to imprisonment and torture by jealous members of the Medici family.
by Lee Na-ri, Hong Joo-yun