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Mitchell Langbert

Winning Office Politics

A guide for 2010 and beyond.

February 18, 2010
by Mitchell Langbert, PhD

Twenty years ago Andrew J. Dubrin, then a management professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, wrote Winning Office Politics: A Guide for the ’90s. Dubrin’s political advice is timeless. I’ve used his ideas in teaching for more than a decade. In 2000, at the height of the Internet bubble, one of my management students at NYU’s Stern School of business raised the question as to whether office politics is an outdated institution because of the increasing flexibility of Internet technology. I referred the student to John Naisbitt’s Megatrends, first written in the early 1980s but updated several times since then. Recall that Naisbitt points out that high tech means high touch. Technology doesn’t reduce the need for people skills; it increases it. Ten years later I’ve received e-mail from members of my 2000 management class at Stern thanking me for the introduction to office politics.

Mirroring

Dubrin emphasizes the importance of a tactic known as mirroring. Mirroring suggests that in order to be successful you need to adopt the patterns of those around you. These include appearance, interests, conversation style and even lifestyle. One of my MBA students worked in a bank where the higher ups and his peers were sports fans. This young manager preferred other kinds of entertainment. But in order to mirror his colleagues, he took subscribed to Sporting News and Sports Illustrated. Soon he knew more about sports than most of his colleagues. He became an avid fan and never looked back. Another manager told me that when his boss bought a Buick, so did he.

Mirroring your boss’ and the higher-ups’ styles goes with understanding their goals, such as active listening — asking your boss for ideas and then following them up; taking notes at meetings to show the boss you care about his ideas; and covering your boss’ “bloopers” are ways of beginning to build a relationship. An attorney I knew worked as an associate at one of the major Manhattan law firms. One day she complained to me that her boss had not only signed his name to a brief she had written, but never gave her credit. I explained to her that this was a very good development and not something to complain about. In fact, employees should always ask themselves if they have considered their boss’ motives carefully enough. How often do employees write thank you notes to their boss or compliment their boss to higher-ups? Good compliments are specific, descriptive, focused on an accomplishment and avoid “nebulous flattery.” If a boss uses an employee’s work, the employee might expect advancement in the near future.

Bonding With Your Boss

Employees should remember that their jobs are not to just achieve their personal goals, but the firm’s as well. The two should match. The goal is to make life easier for your boss, not the other way around. If your supervisor is asked to do a “dirty job” that no one else wants, a smart employee will volunteer to do it well. Loyalty, defending your manager politically and maintaining frequent contact with him or her are smart steps.

Relationships with one’s boss are crucial to the entire political problem. Before developing a political strategy, astute employees clarify their own goals and develop a political game-plan around them by integrating organizational and interpersonal analysis. In David Halberstam’s classic history of the Kennedy years, The Best and the Brightest, he describes the career of Robert McNamara, the president of Ford Motor Company who became Secretary of Defense. At one point, one of McNamara’s subordinates in the defense department was offered the job of White House press secretary. He asked McNamara whether he should accept the job and McNamara told him “no.” McNamara proceeded to describe every White House position and the degree of power the position permitted. His assessment of the White House organization was part of an astute political game-plan that extended well beyond the Pentagon.

Besides performing a power analysis, Dubrin recommends figuring out the type of politics that are played at the top; examining the extent of nepotism that might block career progress; and understanding status symbols. For example, in some firms reading certain publications such as the Harvard Business Review or the AICPA Career Insider might betoken high status. An error to avoid is getting involved in other people’s conflicts. A friend who engages in a political battle is entitled to your advice and sympathy, but not your support.

The Power of Politics

Politics is linked to power. When he was chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank, David Rockefeller was frequently listed by New York Magazine as one of New York’s most prominent powerbrokers. Besides the obvious family and business connections, Rockefeller had founded two global training organizations, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission. The numerous contacts that Rockefeller developed provided a rolodex of 10,000 executives and political leaders. Alliances with high-level people are critical to obtaining political power.

One’s position in the organization also is important to obtaining power. Positional sources of power include visibility, flexibility, centrality and relevance. Employees whose work is visible to the higher-ups are most likely to advance. Jobs that provide the flexibility to exercise judgment facilitate demonstrably successful performance. Jobs that are central to the organization and enable the employee to meet many contacts, to network and to develop long-term relationships are most conducive to obtaining power. Line jobs that are most relevant to an organization’s mission also lead to obtaining power. Thus, it is better to be an accountant than an office manager in an accounting firm if your goal is to become partner.

On a personal level, besides image management and strategic political thinking, managers might consider more Machiavellian tactics. For instance, a manager who is good at warming his way into positions of responsibility is likely to gain power. Recall the AMC television show Madmen set in the early 1960s and the Rich Sommer character of Harry Crane. In the series, Crane suggests that the firm establish a new television department and that he be the director. This enabled him to move to a higher level in the firm. When employees resign and vacancies appear, a manager similarly might consider proposing that the vacated post be combined with their own job. This was a tactic that New York’s powerbroker, Robert Moses, used. In Robert Caro’s classic book, Power Broker, Caro describes how Moses held 12 jobs simultaneously, six New York City-based jobs and six New York State-based jobs. Mayors, governors and presidents came and went, but if they wanted something done in New York, they had to go to Robert Moses, who held power from the late 1920s to the early 1970s.

Conclusion

There are numerous power-related tactics and it is never too early or too late to hone and perfect political skills.

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Mitchell Langbert, PhD, is an Associate Professor, Brooklyn College. Widely published on the subject of human resource management, Langbert has consulted and served as an expert witness.