Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Corporate Politics - Nasty Tactics

Most of us have seen it at least, even if we haven't been immersed in it ourselves. I'm talking about the world of corporate politics. The power trips, the stonewalling, the tactics, the strategies, the character assassinations, the power plays, people taking credit they don’t deserve, and putting the blame for their own mistakes on others instead of themselves. The ruined careers, the wild chances, the phony suck-ups, the brown-nosers. The great pretenders, the hidden budgets, the hidden perks, favoritism, all the saints and sinners.

In every major company, there are always some who are trying to build their own little fiefdoms. And there are those who love to criticize others. There are those who pretend to know things they don’t and there are those who happily assassinate the character of their rivals. There are always people trying to leverage their situation to improve their security, their power, their wealth, their popularity, and their success. There are all kinds of political animals out there.
Over the years, I have seen a lot of different tactics, so that, while I haven’t seen it all yet, I have seen enough to give me a reasonable understanding of the lay of the land.

Here is one example of a subtle trick: I remember one guy that I used to work with. His trick was to walk around and just ask people what they were working on and how things were going. He would do it harmlessly and conversationally, and people thought nothing of a little friendly conversation with “Stanley”. He seemed like a nice guy. But then what he would do is get into a meeting with your mutual, higher boss in your absence and starting talking about your area and reporting on your status, instead of allowing you to report on your own area.
Stanley would offer all the information that the big boss needed so that he didn’t need to talk to you. Then he would gradually assume the role of reporting for your area. The boss would come to ask Stanley about status on your area because he always seemed to know the answers – which seemingly puts him in a position over you. When he would explain things and the big boss would ask why something was the way it was, he would offer to go find out. Then Stanley would come back to you to find out, and before you know it – Stanley is your new de-facto boss, and it’s only a matter of time before it is made official.

But that is not a nasty trick, since all he did was insert himself into the reporting stream between you and your boss. At least he didn’t assassinate your character. But there are plenty of people who will glady do that, and there are plenty of ways to do it.
For example, there is a dirty tactic that I call, “30,000 foot bombing”. This is a form of character assassination that is done high-up, in meetings among people at the higher levels of a company. It might be coffee conversation while milling about waiting for an important quarterly results meeting to start. It’s usually casually said, but in high places. The person who wants to destroy his rival might say any one of the following comments about that rival.

1) “His project is completely out of control”
2) “He is NOT a team player.”
3) “He just doesn’t get it.”
4) “He isn’t able to see the big picture.”
5) “He needs constant supervision.”
6) “Everywhere he goes, he leaves behind a trail of mushroom clouds.”
7) “He runs every business into the ground.”
8 ) “He is just a small-time manager – he has no vision.”
9) “He is a loose cannon.”
10) “For God’s sake – don’t let him talk to the press.”
11) “How he manages to still survive when we’ve lost some perfectly GOOD people, I’ll never know.”
12) "I've tried helping him, but he is beyond help."
13) "I used to think he had a drinking problem, but now, I don't think so. That's just simply the way he is."
14) "He's probably doing the best he can manage."

These comments are deadly bombs and there is no real defense against them. Think about it. These are large-scale crushing accusations, for which the defense would have to be a string of details. But the details are not welcome or discussed in that context - in a meeting with executives. These are one-liner carpet bombs. How do you defend yourself if someone has said your project or your department “is out of control”? The only adequate defense would be to give a detailed status report on your project to show how well you know all your details. But in the executive suite, NO ONE wants to hear the details like that. They deal in high-level generalities. And in those high-level generalities, you cannot defend against these kinds of attacks. So – once the attack is made, it sticks. There is no way to exonerate yourself. All the person who is attacked can do is to attack back in similar fashion.
And so it becomes a battle to the death. But usually, people back away from the fight long before it escalates to that point. They reserve the attacks for the lower level up & comers to keep them from ever entering the rarified air of the executive suite. They sabotage their chances first, and that keeps them from getting to the point where they could potentially launch a counter-offensive.
Occasionally, two of the execs will gang up on a third though. They can decide between them how they will split up the conquered territory ahead of time, and then design a concerted tag-team attack. It’s deadly.

There are so many ways they could accomplish it. They can use any of the comments listed above, and each person reinforces the other. When the CEO is hearing it from two different sources, it no longer seems personal – now it seems like a problem to be dealt with. Each one shows “scars” in their organization from where they had to deal with the target person’s organization.
They may say things such as, "All of our projects are doing very well and tracking according to schedule – EXCEPT of course the ones where we have to engage Ted’s organization. Naturally, we can’t expect to get good traction there. We always have trouble once we engage with his teams. Most of his projects are out of control and behind schedule. They can’t respond in time, and that slows us down. So, to be realistic, any projects where our teams have to interact with his teams, we have to add an automatic schedule slide factor of about 30%. But in all other areas, we’re doing fine!”

They can combine these direct attacks – 30,000 ft bombs – with non-verbal assaults, which are the more subtle weapons that actually work quite quickly to marginalize a person and destroy their credibility.

These include tactics like rolling their eyes every time a certain person speaks in a meeting. Or they make facial expressions that look like a suppressed laugh. As if they are having a hard time not laughing right out loud at him. Or else they refuse to look at him when he speaks. Or talk over him. Or dismiss his results or his findings. Or they work the speaking rotation so the victim speaks last, and then just before the victim speaks, they standup as if to leave the meeting and say, “Well that’s a good update. I think we have some next steps to follow up on… thanks everybody!” And that forces the person to speak up and say he hadn’t spoken yet. That forces everyone to sit down again, so they are all put out.

Then there are situational things they can do. They can go to the big boss and convince him to give them a similar responsibility and then try to marginalize everything the victim does by simply looking at his next targeted activities and doing them first – thus making his work seem late and unnecessary. Or they can trump his data by reporting his results for him before he gets a chance to stand up and deliver them. Or sabotaging the other projects or other systems or people that are upstream from the victim’s project and making him wait for input – and therefore run late. There are a thousand ways to make someone look bad.

Eventually, the victim is discredited, discouraged, and either fired, or he quits on his own – leaving his responsibilities and projects free for the taking by his rivals. It’s a pretty cut-throat world out there.


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