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.



A Question is Coming

Chaos isn't a pit. Chaos is a ladder.
Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some are given a chance to climb, but they refuse. They cling to the realm or the gods or love. Illusions.
Only the ladder is real.
The climb is all there is.
Petyr Baelish (from Games of Thrones episode "The Climb")

Imagine you've just listened to a top-notch presentation by Bob, an expert on corporate strategy. He's clearly a fan of the HBO hit Game of Thrones and has even used some short, dramatic video clips to illustrate his talking points. You check the time, shift in your seat, and look up as Bob asks, "Does anyone have any questions?"

Ever notice that some people's questions seem so polished and generate a much better response not just from the presenter, but the audience? Ever stir up the courage to ask a question before a packed room only to let your nerves get the best of you? Ever have a sophisticated question in your head end up as a rambling, garbled question as you speak?

Don't be discouraged. With a few EZPZ steps, you can improve your question-asking skills.

#1. Address the presenter by their name. Nothing sounds as sweet to a person as the sound of their own name. Well, perhaps it's second only to the ka-ching of winning the lottery, but it's a close second and it shows respect.

#2. Mention your name. You're asking a great question and are showing interest, so give yourself a little credit and personal branding.

#3. (Optional) Pay a compliment. This should be based on what you know about the presenter or what they said or did during the presentation. Be sincere. People can smell fakeness a mile away.

#4. Frame your question with the "why." Including the raison d'etre for your question makes it more interesting and allows for a better answer. A seemingly random question can be unsettling and make the presenter feel like an ATM from which you are trying to make a clumsy withdrawal.

Advanced technique: Where it makes sense, echo back terminology or examples that the presenter has just used.

Now you're back in the room and Bob makes eye contact, extends his arm towards you and invites you to proceed. Let's see how you do...

Good, but you can do better
What do you do when you don't know who to trust?

Hi Bob, thanks so much for taking the time to present to us. My name is Joe Kwon and I was wondering what your advice would be for someone who finds themselves in a business situation where they don't know who to trust.

Hi, Bob, I really enjoyed your creative use of video. My name is Joe Kwon and a large part of success in my field depends on figuring out who to trust in a short amount of time. Going back to your Game of Thrones analogy, if you were in Cersei's shoes and didn't know who to trust, how would you approach that in a business setting?

You owe a debt to yourself to raise your hand and ask a good question when you are in good company. Make like a Lannister - always pay your debts.

Good luck!

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


Upward Mobility


I am suffering from some serious Game of Thrones withdrawal. This speech by Littlefinger reminds me of a great piece of advice I received long ago from a Third Circuit judge. My summer job was in Trenton interning for a N.J. District court judge and she arranged for us to have lunch with her colleague. This gentleman left quite an impression on the four first-year law students. He could still remember the most minute details of cases he had decided years before like the name of the witness' dog. We were just soaking in his stories and bits of wisdom. But it was his parting words that left the biggest impression. 

He said he understood that we were all ambitious and wanted to advance our careers. And he knew that we would have battles along the way and would sometimes have to push others down as we climbed the ladder. But he reminded us the legal community is small and that sometimes you will find your positions reversed, so never screw anybody extra.