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How to Thrive in a World of Lying, Backstabbing and Dirty Trickst
I f you stumble out of the office cursing under your breath and telling yourself your boss is a psycho . . . you are probably spot-on. Oliver James, the psychologist who analysed a whole nation in his book Britain on the Couch and charted the rise of depression as a by-product of economic success in Affluenza, has turned his attention to the workplace.
What he has found is, essentially, a bear pit, packed with competitive, selfish, backstabbing colleagues jostling for promotion from malevolent, scheming, sometimes frankly bonkers bosses.
Spotting overpromoted, malicious animals is crucial for anyone hoping to survive the office jungle, says James. While most of us are the sheep, cows, pigs and other common livestock eking out a living as best we can, there is always some hungry predator above, alongside and below you, making your life a misery.
Bosses, according to James, come in three types: cold, ruthless psychopaths; calculating Machiavellis; and vain, puffed-up narcissists. James calls this the Dark Triad, because the lines are blurred. A boss who fits one or other of these stereotypes will share some characteristics of the other two.
If yours is benign and relatively sane, be thankful - you are in the minority. The punishing environment of the modern workplace demands elements of triadic behaviour to succeed at all levels. The likelihood of your daily working life being troubled by a person who is some mixture of psychopathic, Machiavellian and narcissistic is high, James says. If you do not develop the skills to deal with them, they will eat you for breakfast.
Being clever or competent is not enough. A first from Oxford might put you at the front of the queue for a job with an investment bank, but it is astuteness in dealing with people that will keep you there and help you rise through the ranks. Display a quiet competence and you will just be ignored.
This may seem obvious to those of us slaving away at our anonymous workstations, but actually over the past 25 years the working landscape in Britain has been transformed. A former manufacturing nation is now one in which more than 85% of us work in service industries. That means that what James calls 'the story' about your working life often matters more than what you actually achieve.
If you work in a factory producing wooden dolls and are paid a set amount per doll, he points out, everyone knows where they stand: you produce 100, or 1,000, a week and get paid or promoted accordingly. But in most modern businesses, assessing merit is much more subjective. How far you rise and how much you are paid may well depend on how much you are liked by your boss, or how well you get on with your clients, or colleagues, says James. In some senses the job is not what you are actually paid to do, it is handling the office politics.
This involves adeptly dealing with the characters and situations at work, yet most people will still tell you they try to ignore, or never get involved in, office politics.
When James started researching the subject, he found people more reluctant to talk about the tactics they used to outmanoeuvre colleagues at work than they had been about money or even sex. Office politics has a nasty ring to it, suggesting backstabbing and dirty tricks.
Actually it's just an inevitable part of professional life, says James, 59. Everybody engages in office politics, even the lamest person in the office, because they have to: it's unavoidable that people will find themselves in competition for the best shifts or the most interesting tasks and if you take action to get your way, there's nothing wrong with that. But what you want to get involved with is healthy office politics, not the toxic kind. Embrace office politics with as much humour, deliberation and wisdom as possible.
Early in his career, James could have done with his own advice. After a few years honing his academic credentials as a university researcher, then working in a psychiatric unit, he moved into making television documentaries and had a spell as a celebrity interviewer. Looking back, he thinks he sabotaged his TV career by being too difficult to work with.
"When I was younger I liked to think of myself as Mr Tell-It-Like-It-Is, honesty personified. I was very self-righteous and too unimaginative and too stupid to understand other people," he says. "My mother used to say I needed to learn to be tactful and that tact was not about being false, it was about not hurting people's feelings. But I was arrogant and I did not box clever. I'm not exactly Mr Cool, the consummate politician, now, but I do understand that other people have feelings and you have to consider them."
Much of what James says may seem close to a statement of the obvious, but he does it with elan, and always chooses subjects that elicit debate. With this latest book he will set us to matching our superiors at work with their appropriate characters. So, how do we spot them?
The psychopath may have a glib, superficial charm, but has no empathy for others. We tend to think of psychopaths as criminals but only a small minority are in prison. Some 1% of the population is estimated to have psychopathic tendencies, but that rises to 4% among senior managers, according to research James has reviewed. If you spot a superior or a colleague undermining or telling untruths about someone else, assume they are doing the same in regard to you.
Machiavellis will be busy moving the human chess pieces around the office board. They might befriend an enemy and, when trusted, give advice or encourage actions that will end in failure. They might encourage a relationship with an unreliable girlfriend or boyfriend, knowing the relationship will eventually cause trouble for their rival.
A narcissist is the easiest to spot because you will hear them blowing their own trumpet. It is also why the TV series The Office was such a success: David Brent is the classic example of someone who is primarily a narcissist. He tries to be Machiavellian but in comically incompetent fashion, says James.
Most people feel they've worked with someone like David Brent. His drive, ambition and grandiosity have got him as far as being office manager but what he lacks is subtlety. That stops him going any further. All the little observations Ricky Gervais makes about how people relate to each other in offices and how they argue about the paperclips and the coffee mugs are correct.
The key office survival skills are astuteness, effectiveness, networking and sincerity. Being able to read other people - and work out what they are up to - is vital to being an office politician. Do not take anything anyone says at face value. Think about what you want and never say anything without asking yourself what it will achieve. There is no need to be underhand or malicious in your dealings, James says; wisdom is likely to achieve more than cunning in the end.
Having worked out what you want to do, choose your moment. Nurture relationships inside your organisation and beyond. Whatever you do, appear sincere. You do not have to be your boss's best friend but you do need to be loyal and supportive - or make a decent show of being so - if you are going to be liked and therefore well thought of when it comes to deciding promotions or pay.
If you come up against a full-blown psychopath who decides he hates you, though, no amount of schmoozing will do the trick. James has only one piece of advice: get the hell out and find another job.
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