Most of us have a sense of our own integrity. There are some things we just won't do. Yet, in extreme situations, most of us would violate our personal codes. Suppose that you believe that you would never assault anyone. Ask yourself, "What if someone tried to snatch my child from me at the mall?" That example might not work for you, but try to find one that does. For most of us, it's surprisingly easy.
So it is in workplace politics. We can justify almost any action when status, self-esteem, and money are at stake — especially after the fact.
This sounds bleak, and you might wonder whether it's worth participating at all. In fact, you're already participating. Maybe you aren't at the heart of the action, but you're at least part of the audience. To stand outside of the politics, you must stand outside of the organization.
You can participate comfortably if you adopt some principles that help manage your risk. Get a small notebook and start your collection. Here are some to get you started.
- Choose your dance partners
- Some people have values that are consistent with yours. Others don't. Some people are much higher rank than you are. Others are nearer your own level. Political agreements with others who are very different from you in values or rank entail greater risk that one of you will hurt the other. Work with those with whom you're comfortable.
- Make agreements explicit
- When a colleague violates an agreement, we can feel wronged, even when the agreement was implicit and even when the colleague was unaware of the agreement. Don't assume — make all agreements explicit. People hardly ever honor agreements they don't know about.
- Make exchanges contemporaneous
- Political agreements
with others who are
very different from you
in values or rank
entail greater risk
that one of you
will hurt the other
- When an agreement involves an exchange, make sure that the exchange is contemporaneous. An exchange in which you deliver now and your partner delivers in six months is risky, because it's tempting to re-interpret the agreement once the exchange is only half-complete.
- Confidences are (almost) always broken
- When you tell someone something in confidence, expect it to get around. Almost all of us — including you! — have repeated something we agreed never to repeat. Pledges of confidentiality have short shelf lives. For more on this, see "You Have to Promise Not to Tell a Soul," Point Lookout for July 25, 2001.
- Other people don't live by your rules
- When someone has transgressed, often the transgression is a violation of your own code of ethics, but not theirs. People are free to break your personal rules. Recognize that each of us has the right to develop our own rules.
Is every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info
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More articles on Ethics at Work:
- Tornado Warning
- When organizations go astray ethically, and their misdeeds come to light, people feel shocked, as if
they've been swept up by a tornado. But ethical storms do have warning signs. Can you recognize them?
- Virtual Termination with Real Respect
- When we have to terminate someone who works at a remote site, sometimes there's a temptation to avoid
travel — to use email, phone, fax, or something else. They're all bad ideas. Terminating people
in person is not only a gesture of respect. It's good business.
- Devious Political Tactics: A Field Manual
- Some practitioners of workplace politics use an assortment of devious tactics to accomplish their ends.
Since most of us operate in a fairly straightforward manner, the devious among us gain unfair advantage.
Here are some of their techniques, and some suggestions for effective responses.
- Appearance Antipatterns: I
- Appearances can be deceiving. Just as we can misinterpret the actions and motivations of others, others
can misinterpret our own actions and motivations. But we can take steps to limit these effects.
- Availability and Self-Assessments
- In many organizations, employees develop self-assessments as a part of the performance review process.
Because of a little-known effect related to the Availability Heuristic, these self-assessments can be
biased against the employee.
See also Ethics at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 29: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
- Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products usually involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help. Available here and by RSS on January 29.
- And on February 5: Unrecognized Bullying: I
- Much workplace bullying goes unrecognized. Three reasons: (a) conventional definitions of bullying exclude much actual bullying; (b) perpetrators cleverly evade detection; and (c) cognitive biases skew our perceptions so we don't see bullying as bullying. Available here and by RSS on February 5.
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- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.