With Martin G. Moore

Episode #168

Political Sabotage at Work: Surviving the shark tank

Politics is no fun.

It can undo you, even if you’re operating with good intent, and doing everything right.

On one level, politics can be seen simply as the process of influencing—but on another it can be a devious, divisive, and manipulative tool, used by individuals to further their own power and control. If allowed to fester, this creates a toxic culture, which can ultimately ruin your company.

During my corporate career, I was almost brought undone a few times by political attacks that I didn’t see coming… so, this episode is all about how to recognize and navigate politics, without buying into the political game yourself.

I even get a little help from Niccolo Machiavelli, the father of political strategy, who brings a layer of understanding to the numerous scars I’ve acquired!

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Episode #168 Political Sabotage at Work: Surviving the shark tank

I’ve lived the rough and tumble of corporate politics in many companies and I can tell you, it’s no fun. Politics can undo you – even if you’re operating with good intent and doing everything right. On one level, politics can be seen simply as a process of influencing, but on another, it can be a devious, divisive tool used by individuals to further their own standing while creating a toxic and cancerous culture – which ultimately ruins your company. Normally on No Bullsh!t Leadership, I like to stay a little more positive, but today I’m going to delve into the murky world of corporate politics, because it is a reality of life in most organisations and every leader needs to have the tools to deal with it.

Even in companies with pretty solid culture and values, I’ve seen some otherwise excellent leaders with some big blind spots who allow politics to fester because, like all of us, they’re prone to overlooking certain behaviours and taking people at their word. During my corporate career, I was almost undone a few times by political attacks that I hadn’t anticipated. So today is all about how to recognise and navigate politics without buying into the political game yourself.

  • I’m going to start with the obvious, how do you spot a political animal?

  • I’ll move on to how you can navigate the politics without becoming political yourself.

  • I’ll finish with some guidance, what you can do to stamp out political behaviour in your own team. So let’s get into it.

it’s machiavellian

How do you spot a political animal? Office politics can be incredibly destructive, but there’s no organisation that’s completely free from politics. Rule number one to not being blindsided is to be able to see it. Let’s start with the definition of politics. For me, it’s the use of intrigue, strategy or treachery to obtain a position of power and control. It has an air of grubbiness to it, and in its worse form, it is positively evil. It implies a level of manipulation and deceit. When I’ve been exposed to it, as often as I have, it absolutely makes my skin crawl. Having said that, one of my direct reports from an organisation many years ago said that I was the most accomplished political player he’d ever seen. Go figure. Now, I do know who I am, and the influence that I use to get the job done was always in the best interest of the organisation, not my own – and certainly not at other people’s expense.

In a moment, you’ll see a really clear delineation of this from the type of political player I’m talking about. When I talk about politics, I’m not talking about the essential role of influencing that you need to undertake to get things done in an organisation. I’m talking about the deception, self-interest and manipulation that corporate politicians use to feather their own nests. The definitive work on politics is a book entitled The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli. This was written in the early 16th century, so it’s over 500 years old and absolutely worth a read. We’ve even used that as an adjective now: Machiavellian. There were some key concepts in this book that really outlined what politics is.

First of all, and most importantly: the ends justify the means. In other words, whatever you do in order to get the result is okay, there are no moral boundaries – including war and summary executions of any of your competitors. You be either a loyal friend or a sworn enemy, but never in between. You defend and protect weak leaders as this drives unquestioning loyalty in them. And if you’re going to be cruel, cruelty has to be delivered swiftly and decisively. Then of course, once you back off a bit, people become supportive. I think that’s what we call contrast. He has interesting views on taxation: leave people alone to work and levy low taxes on them, which is much better than taxing people highly and spending like a drunken sailor in order to seem generous. Those are my words, of course not Niccolò’s. Are any modern politicians listening to that one? Sort of interesting right? In the world of The Prince, self-interest dominates and overrides everything else. It’s okay to be deceitful, corrupt and brutal as long as you know when to do it and how to cover it up.

Is this ringing a bell with anyone yet? Having said that, I do like a few of Machiavelli’s principles. The first is whatever you do, be decisive and act quickly. I talk a lot about that. Boldly shape your future. Don’t just wait for the uncertainty to be resolved – even 500 years ago, they were dealing with ambiguity. Get strong advisors and make sure you have your own weaknesses covered off. As he says in the book, the first thing one does to evaluate a ruler’s prudence is to look at the people around him.

identifying a political animal in business

What does a political animal look like in the business context? Well, let’s bear in mind Machiavelli’s framework, it’s quite instructive. Political animals don’t take any issue head on. They don’t engage in discussions with conflict in a group situation. They prefer to go one-on-one with the boss to influence them. They can’t tolerate the slightest criticism and they deflect it ferociously – typically onto other people. This is why single point accountability is so important. They are short on accountability, long on excuses. They’re at pains to always agree with their boss – and I have seen some truly vomitous behaviour in the form of public fawning and flattery.

  • They suck up to the boss and serve up exactly what the boss wants to see and hear, and this often results in them being granted trusted advisor status.

  • They built a relationship of strong influence with those people above and they spend more time focused on those relationships than on the people below. Quite often you’ll get them as kiss up, kick down bosses.

  • They’re Yes Men.

  • They demonstrate a lack of trust in many ways.

  • They cover up anything bad that happens on their watch and disproportionately trumpet the good.

  • They blow the team’s achievements way out of proportion because they set low and unambitious targets.

  • They don’t pay any heed to people who can’t further their self-interested cause.

  • They work out pretty quickly who can help them to get the power they seek and form strong alliances with those people.

Now, this is like a mini-checklist for a medical condition. You know the ones – “if you suffer from any four of these half dozen symptoms, you may be at risk of heart disease, so please see your doctor”. I can say with some confidence that we have very few, if any listeners who are like this – why? Well, on No Bullsh!t Leadership our straight-shooting approach is like kryptonite to the political beast. So we’re free to talk amongst ourselves in confidence. They are not listening.

navigating corporate politics

How do you navigate corporate politics without becoming political yourself? It’s really important that you read the play. Do you know what’s going on around you? I’ve been caught off guard a couple of times. Why? Because I fundamentally believe that doing the best job I could for the organisation I worked for would be noticed and rewarded. And I figured if I did that, it would ultimately be in my own best interest personally: look after the big stuff and the little stuff takes care of itself. I believe that doing it the right way, with integrity and courage would be recognised – and for the most part it was. But I also work for the odd insecure, weak, self-interested leader who was very susceptible to the type of flattery and attention that only a true political animal can deliver. And yes, I was probably a bit naïve about the amount of power and influence that could be wielded by an individual who wasn’t particularly bright, hardworking, or value-focused, yet who had mastered the art of corporate politics.

When I think of the best bosses I’ve ever worked for the type of relationship we had was open, direct and fun. Instead of always sucking up to them, I’d make jokes at their expense – as they would of me. They had no problem telling me when I wasn’t doing things the way they thought I should, and I had no problem telling them when I thought they were wrong about something. Looking back over the duration of my career, it’s bosses like Janice Hagen, Rob Ravanello, Wayne Patterson and Paul Scurrah that I remember for their ability to read the political play without ever playing politics. But here’s the hard, cold facts of corporate life: people will play politics. You need to know who they are and how they might affect you. And, you need to get ahead of that without lowering yourself to their level. So make sure you understand any direct touchpoint that you may have between your teams and theirs. When they try to discredit you – as they surely will if you’re perceived to be a threat – don’t attack, just bring facts.

Now in dealing with a political player, it’s really hard to get them to concede anything or to move in any direction. So I always thought it was better to go to the boss that they were trying to influence than to that political player themselves. This is a little counterintuitive when we think about the No Bullsh!t Leadership framework. Normally I’d say go directly to the problem and have it out at the source. But with a political player, they’re unlikely to listen, they’re unlikely to be honest with you, and you’re unlikely to make any headway with them. It’s pretty hard to reason with someone whose only interest is in their own power, money and status. Instead, I would approach the gullible boss with classic statements like this: “Okay, boss. I’ve heard along the grapevine that there’s a bit of noise around this particular issue. I just want to bring you up to date with where we actually are based on the facts, and give you an opportunity to interrogate them so that you’re comfortable with where we are and what actions we’re taking.”

Quite often, there’ll be occasions where you can feel the knives in your back, so being direct with the person who’s allowing that situation to perpetuate is pretty important. I said to more than one CEO or chairman in the past, “I hear there’s a bit of flack flying over this one, and I just want you to know that I won’t be buying into all the political crap. I’m just going to keep delivering because that’s what I’m focused on, despite the fact that Greg’s telling you otherwise. Ultimately it’s going to come down to results, right? And I’m very, very happy to be judged on that basis.” Now the biggest challenge with corporate politics is actually being able to see it. Once you do, there are heaps of ways to skin that cat that don’t require you to sell your soul.

stamp out politics in your team

What do you do when you have a political player in your midst? Well, here’s an interesting thing – you may be able to see political players above and around you, but it’s much harder to see them below you. Why? Because they’re astute political players, they are masters of subterfuge, and they’ll tell you exactly what you want to hear. I’ve seen some really smart and experienced people, fall prey to political animals below them. I’m reasonably convinced that I fallen for it in the past as well – at least for a period of time. So what do you look for? Well, all things we just went through, but if you think you may have a political animal working for you, you need to flush them out. Watch carefully what their interactions with others are like, and more importantly, make a critical assessment of how they interact with you.

One of the key things is the one-on-one interaction. They’ll talk a lot about what everyone else is doing – be really careful here, this may feel as though they’re the only ones keeping you informed. They’ll tell you things that you haven’t been able to observe yourself, and you might even feel grateful for that insight. You may feel better informed and more confident of your grip on a given situation, but keep your eyes open. The critical question to always ask yourself when one person talks to you about another person is cui bono – who benefits from you forming a particular view? A lot of the time a political player will use the obvious tactic of disparaging one of their peers in order to build themselves up. Let’s face it, these people get an allocation of perceived power simply by having you listen to them. In the end for the political player, it’s all about their own power and position.

To keep this in check there’s one very simple technique. Always ensure that if anyone’s talking to you about someone else, you insist on having the conversation with the other person present. Something like this: “Oh yes. I’ve heard you say that you don’t think Dave is delivering on your needs. Well, let’s all get together and work out how I can help you to overcome this problem so that we can be successful”. If you take on face value what you’re told, that can be extremely misleading. Even if the person who is trash talking one of their peers is actually coming from a place of genuine concern for the business, there’s one very important rule to remember – which I learned as a young lad, working for an Italian chef in what was at the time, one of Sydney’s better restaurants. He told me no matter how thinly you slice the prosciutto, it always has two sides to it.

Beyond this, there are a few things to help you spot a political player who works for you and to deal with the situation accordingly:

Not allowing anyone to island someone else

Anyone who’s being disparaged deserves a right of reply, and you need to get all the dead cats on the table. Don’t let your trusted advisors drag you into the star chamber where people’s fates are decided behind closed doors, with no explanation or feedback. That is terrible leadership, but I’m really surprised at how many CEOs and their HR departments actually fall for this one.

Always look at results first

You’ve got to watch people’s feet, not their lips. Be attuned to the gross overstatement of wins and the coverup or off-handed discarding of losses. Be the kind of boss who’s prudent and looks at the data, not just listens to the spin, because more often than not for the political player, they will be long on sizzle and short on sausage.

Make sure your people don’t set soft targets

Sometimes this goes further than you might think. Now, when I was running CS Energy, we set pretty tough targets for improving safety performance, as well as our financial performance. So tough that we actually didn’t achieve them in many of the years under my watch. Now we’re in a board meeting once, I got a question from one of our directors, “I see we missed our safety target again this year Marty, but our sister company achieved theirs. Why aren’t we performing as well as them?” To which I replied, “Um, it might help if you read the fine print on that one. They managed to outperform their serious injury target because it was three times greater than ours. We had less injuries than they did, and our performance was simply measured against a much tougher target.” Now I’m not in any way trying to disparage the other company. I raised this just to illustrate the differences that you have to be aware of in order to assess a situation accurately.

Be attuned to flattery

I was talking to a colleague of mine just before I took on the Chief Executive role at CS Energy, and he said to me, “You’ve got to remember Marty, from now on your jokes will all be just a little bit funnier. Take any compliment from below with guarded scepticism. You need to be able to work out whether the compliment is genuinely meant for you or rather for themselves.”

Corporate politics can be a grubby business. Don’t get dragged into it, but to be effective in your organisation, you need to learn to step around it, over it and rise above it. And if you find yourself in an organisation that supports a culture of political manipulation and undermining, then you have to wonder if that’s an organisation you actually want to dedicate your efforts to on a daily basis.



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