Office Game of Thrones


Have you ever known a coworker who could do no wrong? Or rather, they COULD and DID do wrong, but it inexplicably didn't hurt their upward trajectory. Have you ever had a coworker who always seemed to be "in the know"? Or one who consistently received the best assignments, avoided layoffs or won awards? Sometimes they are a role model and you aspire to be like them. Sometimes they are an empty suit and let's be honest, you secretly long for their demise. And sometimes, they are scheming and self-serving, but deliver great results. A sort of modern-day Petyr Baelish (aka Littlefinger) who zips into work in their Audi A8 and climbs the corporate ladder like a monkey on Ritalin.

What do all these people have in common?

They understand and know how to wield influence and power. They are the winners in your office's Game of Thrones. It's almost as if they are playing a different game than everyone else or playing on a different level. Imagine a chess match between World Champion Bobby Fischer and the Waterboy Bobby Boucher.

I'm reminded of a humorous example I once saw about next-level, high-risk political maneuvering.

I told my son, “You will marry the girl I choose.”
He said, “NO!”
I told him, “She is Bill Gates’ daughter.”
He said, “OK.”

I called Bill Gates and said, “I want your daughter to marry my son.”
Bill Gates said, “NO.”
I told Bill Gates, My son is the CEO of World Bank.”
Bill Gates said, “OK.”

I called the President of World Bank and asked him to make my son the CEO.
He said, “NO.”
I told him, “My son is Bill Gates’ son-in-law.”
He said, “OK.”
This is exactly how politics works . . .

Now if you are like a lot of people, you are not a fan of office politics. You come into the office, work hard, and expect to be treated fairly. I'm the same way. And for most people in most situations, this is enough. However, without an understanding of how office politics work, you may miss opportunities to advance your career and in some instances, may inadvertently put your career at risk. Cue poker proverb.


Self-conscious about being the sucker at the table, I recently attended "The Hidden Language of Business: Workplace Politics, Power, and Influence," a training offered by the Institute for Management Studies (IMS), which has been providing Executive Education programs for over 40 years. Our instructor was Margaret Morford, the CEO of The HR Edge. Her clients have included Chevron, Time Warner, Sara Lee, U.S. Marine Corps, Verizon and various local and state governments. She has been quoted in the WSJ, New York Times, and the Chicago Tribune and appears regularly on local ABC, CBS and Fox TV affiliates. Margaret is the author of“Management Courage – Having the Heart of a Lion” and “The Hidden Language of Business – Workplace Politics, Power & Influence.

One of the many important insights shared was the delicate nature of disagreeing with a powerful person. Imagine a senior leader asks you to interview someone they have become enamored of for an important role. During the interview it becomes crystal clear that while the candidate has some good qualities and experience, hiring them for this role would be a disaster. The problem is you know that the senior leader (let's call them Riley) has already made up their mind and may react negatively to any critical assessments. How do you navigate this minefield?

Lesson #1 - Stay on the Same Team

What happens when someone is asking for your opinion and they realize you are not on their team? "Red alert! Shields up!" Now anything you say will be heard with a "not on my team" filter. Prepare for anything you say to be met with the 3 D's - distrust, disdain, and disapproval. This limits your ability to be persuasive and going forward you may be excluded from providing input on similar decisions. So to avoid this, when Riley asks for your opinion, your very first reaction should be to start with the positive and supportive items as a teammate to Riley. These must be genuine. If you are insincere, if you hesitate or if your body language betrays you, in Riley's mind you will not only be on the "other team," you will be a faker. 

Lesson #2 - Inform from their Perspective

You could have all the best reasons in the world to not recommend this person for the role. However, if your reasons against do not line up with Riley's reasons for, you may find your advice nonchalantly swatted away like a gnat. What is more effective is to show how your feedback informs what is important to Riley, such as sharing additional information that speaks to their priorities. If you don't know what is important, find out. This approach doesn't guarantee success, but at least you are speaking the same language now. 

Lesson #3 - Know When to Fold

Margaret asked us at several points, "Do you want to be right or do you want to get what you need?" And in this case, getting what you need is stating your concerns in a way that is as persuasive as possible AND maintaining a positive relationship with Riley. It does not mean getting Riley to change their mind.

In truth, though the stakes are higher with a more powerful person like Riley, these lessons are helpful for interactions at any level. This approach exhibits and requires emotional intelligence, respect and above all, self-control.

Finally, you may be wondering, "If Riley just wants to rubber stamp this, why should I bother sticking my neck out?" Great question. Consider this. If the candidate is a disaster and the debriefing and blame game begin, who would you rather be? The person who wholeheartedly recommended hiring without any reservations OR the person who respectfully pointed out serious concerns, but ultimately supported the hiring as a team player?

The most important lesson I took away was that the value of understanding office politics is to help you better navigate workplace waters. Successful sailors are aware of their surroundings, avoid hazards, and understand the importance of team work.


Next post next Saturday, 6:30 a.m.