Ultimately, everybody loses

Ultimately, everybody loses
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First Published: Sun, Dec 14 2008. 11 36 PM IST

Updated: Sun, Dec 14 2008. 11 36 PM IST
What do you think of Barack Obama’s appointment of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state?
- Charles Pashley, Philadelphia
On its merits, Hillary Clinton’s appointment is terrific. But putting merit aside for a moment, senator Clinton’s appointment is also a spark that will surely ignite humankind’s oldest and most unproductive form of organizational dysfunction: palace intrigue. That is, unless the new president makes it painfully clear through public embarrassments that he will not tolerate the gossiping, manoeuvring, tea-leaf reading, back-stabbing and general office politicking that so many people hold dear.
That’s right: Lots of people love palace intrigue, despite widespread claims to the contrary. And the more intellectual they are, the more they seem to thrive on it, with brainy media industry types being perhaps the worst offenders. (Not to narrow the field!) Cliques pop up, plotting occurs and information bartering happens in every kind of organization, public and private, large and small.
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The Obama White House will likely be no exception. Indeed, with the installation of the new secretary of state, it’s especially unavoidable since she comes with a prefashioned band of devoted partisans, the so-called Clintonistas. Sure, Clinton will have the best of intentions and her staff will swear allegiance to the new boss, but with old scores to be settled and reputations to be revived, the issues won’t be the only thing on their minds. Palace intrigue is also sure to bubble up betweenTimothy Geithner’s crew of supporters in the treasury department and Larry Summers’ loyalists on the National Economic Council, with both sides jockeying for bragging rights about access to the president, not to mention for the warm glow of positive public opinion.
In business, palace intrigue is also all about power—who has it, who’s going to get it and which players will end up on the right side. Thus employees at every level of a company—although the politicking definitely gets meaner and more intense towards the top—tend to align themselves with one team or another. They huddle in each other’s offices, selectively sharing data about personnel moves, real and imagined. They forward each other incriminating emails from perceived enemies with snide comments. They support allies at meetings and on projects and (subtly) try to undermine rivals. At its best, palace intrigue is petty. At its worst, it can be war.
It’s always dumb. Not just because it’s unproductive, as we said above, but because it ultimately hurts more careers than it helps. Some ruthless office politickers make it to the top. But in the long run those who relentlessly refuse to play the game are rewarded with the organization’s trust and a reputation for integrity. They’re known to hold no grudges and harbour no hidden agendas.
That’s why, when you start at a new organization, you have to fight the instinct to be drawn into the fray. You’ll have to fight hard, too, since those already enmeshed will try assiduously to court you with insider insights and vague promises of help. Don’t fall for it. Every participant in palace intrigue falls into one of two categories. Either he’s a boss hater, bitter or resentful for any number of reasons, who’s bent on subterfuge. Or he’s a boss wannabe who sees you as a rung on his ladder. And remember, every palace intriguer is a double agent by definition, ready and able to trade your opinions to get information in return.
So muster your strength any way you can. We have a friend who keeps a piece of paper in his top desk drawer that says, “I love everyone,” and refers to it every time he feels the lure of internecine battles. Another technique is to steer clear of the biggest players of the office game when possible, or at least avoid any conversations with them that might aggravate the situation.
The task for managers takes guts too. If you want to lessen palace intrigue in your organization, you need to do what we’ve suggested for the president-elect, which is to move out those who waste their time with it. And as you do, explain to everyone why they left. Don’t say they left the organization “for personal reasons” or “to spend more time with the family.” Say: “They cared more about themselves than the organization’s success.”
And in politics, as in business, that’s no way to win.
©2008/By NYT Syndicate
Write to Jack & Suzy
Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning. Their latest book is Winning: The Answers: Confronting 74 of the Toughest Questions in Business Today. Mint readers can email them questions at winning@livemint.com Please include your name, occupation and city. Only select questions will be answered.
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First Published: Sun, Dec 14 2008. 11 36 PM IST