Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. That's the message from Blaine Pardoe, author of Cubicle Warfare: Self-Defense Strategies for Today's Hypercompetitive Workplace (Prima Publishing, 1997). Need a feel-bad antidote to our feel-good talk about the upside of office politics? Then look no further than this book.
"Politics is a necessary evil," Pardoe says, "and often it's just plain evil. Unfortunately, it's also how things get done." Pardoe, 35, is an unlikely candidate for such tough talk. He is director of technology-education services for Ernst & Young LLP, the giant consulting firm. During the day, he manages training programs for E&Y professionals. In his spare time, he writes science-fiction novels as well as other books. "Office politics is like wrestling with a pig," Pardoe jokes. "You're going to get dirty - and the pig likes it." In an interview with Fast Company, Pardoe offered his five principles for dealing with the downside of office politics:
1. You can't win unless someone else loses.
"The root of all politics is competition. Performance reviews usually judge people against their colleagues. All salespeople compete against each other. There are winners and losers in all companies. Playing politics is the way to stand out. So you must play to win."
2. Just because you don't get what you want doesn't mean you're getting the shaft.
"Not every defeat is the result of politics. I got a call on a radio show in which a guy said, 'My wife was a victim of office politics. She was not promoted, even though she was the most qualified.' I said, 'What makes you think she should have gotten the job? Maybe she had the wrong personality. Maybe the timing wasn't right. Not everybody is going to make vice president.' Office politics can be a convenient villain. It prevents you from understanding more substantive issues."
3. Politics is about power - and power is measured in weird ways.
"The other day, I was at a company where a woman was counting the ceiling tiles to see if she had more office space than someone else. There's no connection between the size of the stakes and the desperation of your competitors. To get an office with a window, some people are willing to get other people fired or to risk ruining their own reputation. Never underestimate what people will do."
4. The past is prologue.
"Always learn the unofficial history of your company: who got into power, how they did it, where the bodies are buried. The unofficial history isn't always accurate; history gets distorted by the victors. But it will teach you how politics gets played at your company - how far people will go, what happens when you lose. You'll never see that stuff in the annual report."
5. Don't believe everything you hear.
"Information is power, and lots of information comes in the form of rumors. But too many people believe too much of what they hear - and make bad decisions as a result. Whenever I hear a rumor, I think about it for a day. Does it make any sense? Who stands to gain from spreading it? Is there an acid test that I can use to evaluate whether it's true? Nine times out of ten, I conclude that it just doesn't hold water."
A version of this article appeared in the April/May 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.