Office Politics for Non-Politicians

Brown-nosers, backstabbers and saboteurs get shot down and sent straight to hell. Decent professionals who build their careers on talent, diligence and devotion always end up on top, serving as beacons for all who aspire to honest success.

Great movie! Especially for us Asian Americans who have always put so much emphasis on the straightforward virtues of education, credentials, diligence and character — and aren’t always rewarded for that predisposition in real life.

Let’s say it right up front — the scourge of the professional workplace is office politics. It destroys our peace of mind and fouls the air with suspicion, resentment and often, outright fear and loathing. Who doesn’t know a master office politician who, despite mediocre talents, no work ethic and the personality and moral character of a pit viper, keeps snagging the raises and promotions bearing other peoples’ names.

How do you keep from becoming victimized by a creature like that?

It’s a question that has engaged great minds through the ages. They’ve all more or less reached the same conclusion — that cunning, manipulative people ultimately fall victim to someone who is even more cunning and manipulative.

Wonderful, but what do you — a decent, hardworking person — do to protect yourself from such people while they live and breathe?

I’m not offering any guarantees, but I have a few suggestions that have worked well for me, and believe me, I’ve had to cope with evil incarnate in my long career in the financial services, entertainment and technology businesses.

Let’s start by recognizing what an office politician is. She is someone who capitalizes on the weaknesses of others. Her objective? To have enough people afraid of her so she can get her way.

She typically starts building her fiefdom in an office by picking out a hardworker minding her own business, someone trying to get by on sheer ability and productivity, someone who doesn’t gossip. This innocent, she decides, will be the first kill to serve as bait.

The office politician befriends the person she has marked as her victim, offering camaraderie, sympathy. Over time the victim begins revealing details of her personal life, even the embarrassing ones. Without her knowledge, the politician begins sharing the juiciest tidbits with others in the office. Anyone who will listen. At first the tidbits are couched in a sympathetic tone. Soon the gossip takes on a gently mocking tone that quickly turns malicious. Now the whole office is joined in stripping the victim of her privacy. They dissect her behavior, pass notes about her, make faces at one another or snicker as she passes — in other words, they turn her into a non-person, a toy.

What is the office politician’s objective? It isn’t to destroy a prospective rival — though it does incidentally serve that purpose. The main objective is to force everyone in the office to be on her side or risk becoming victimized. It’s sheer intimidation, disguised as friendly gossip. It doesn’t take long for everyone to fall in line, including the boss. Few bosses have the spare energy, social self-assurance and sheer gumption to slap down an office politician who is up and running. They may know what is happening and probably regret it, but would rather play along and save their energies rather than risk open war with a killer.

The unfortunate victim of the whispering campaign isn’t the politician’s only victim. As soon as she senses that the office is in her thrall, the politician begins intimidating superiors into giving her the raises and promotions that should have gone to others. It isn’t long before the manipulator has risen far above her original level and has set her sights on climbing even higher. Her ambition will produce the other victims, all the people who are denied their promotions for the manipulator’s sake.

So, how do you keep from becoming one of the victims?

Start by recognizing that if you are already the first victim — the bait — you must leave for greener pastures. It doesn’t matter if the manipulator herself has moved on. You are dead meat in that organization. Next

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