Zen and the Art of Office Politics

The dynamics of human interaction in a office setting are always interesting.  People work together to accomplish mutal goals, like running a business, selling a product, obtaining equity financing through the stock exchange, building departments and “teams.”  All well and good.  If the business prospers, its employees prosper as well, in most cases.  The problems in an office setting occur when one employee sees another employee as a threat to his position, power, credibility or prestige. 

The macro-goal of the business’s success then takes a back seat to that employee’s personal ambition and ego.  The result is some nasty phenomenon known as “Office Politics.”  Most of us have suffered through this frustrating annoyance at one time or the other.  Recently, I was a consultant to a high tech company in Silicon Valley where I began to be treated rudely by my supervisor.  I am older than he is and have many more years experience and I think he resented it.  He was the boss and, therefore, supposed to be the smartest guy in the room. 

Actually, this executive has knowledge that I don’t have and I have knowledge that he doesn’t have, and together we could have made a great team.  Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to see it that way.  I was impinging on his turf.  When I found significant errors in the retained earnings accounts of some subsidiaries and corrected them, I thought he might be so grateful that he would extend my contract.   After all, such errors would not likely be seen as favorable by the SEC.  Instead, he asked me if I could cut back my hours as I neared the end of my assignment.

Unbelievably, he later called me into his office and told me that “older workers had always been his best employees.”  Then he contradicted himself by saying “the older you get, the less creative you are and the more rigid in your thinking.”  He then told me about “old” people he knew who had dropped dead in their sixties.  As I left his office, he said with a smile, “Don’t die.”  Though I am well past the half-century mark, I am in perfect health and not at all ready to retire, let alone die.  His comments, though feigning concern for me, were pregnant with latent hostility.

At first I felt anger at him for this.  However, I have come to realize that such conflicts in the workplace are really just natural occurrences resulting from perceived conflicts of personal interest.  If I am perceived to be a threat to another’s ego or his job, naturally he wants to get rid of me or reduce my influence in his sphere of employment.  If I have too much credibility, people may look to me for solutions instead of him, thereby undermining his job, his role and his self-image.  Unfortunately, some people falsely believe that “in order for me to win, you have to lose.” 

It is natural that people who make you feel insecure or inadequate are probably not the kind of people you want to have around.  Indeed, the less enlightened may unconsciously (or deliberately) undermine them to reduce their power and influence.   Contrast this with Henry Ford, who cited one of the main reasons for his success was by “hiring people that are smarter than me.”  He was exaggerating.  What he did do was to hire people with specific expertise that he didn’t have.  After all, none of us can know everything.

Office politics are largely impersonal.  My antagonist is like a dog protecting his turf by peeing on the corners.  Or, in this case, by peeing on me.  I can understand it, though I don’t agree with it.  I could, of course, make trouble for this guy by relating his remarks and his attitude to Human Resources.  But I won’t.  I won’t because I understand his insecurity and because that’s not my style.  Silicon Valley is a small place and word gets around.  I don’t want to be seen as a troublemaker.   Sometimes the best solution is to just walk away. 

What I will do instead is to raise my own level of conscious awareness about corporate politics and the human dynamic in the workplace.   I will try to manage that dynamic so that it works for me and with me instead of against me.   In the future I should seek to underscore my role as a loyal lieutenant at the outset, rather than allow a situation of competition to develop.  I will try to be Obe Wan Kenobe to younger executives’ Luke Skywalker, or even their Yoda, though I’m not short and green.  What I don’t want is for them to mistake me for the Sith Lord.

There will be other projects and more enlightened supervisors.  Indeed, I have already worked for several of these great people so I know they’re out there. 


2 responses to “Zen and the Art of Office Politics

  1. very interesting, but I don’t agree with you

  2. Your comment about disagreeing is too vague to be helpful. You don’t agree with me about what?

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