Politics in the Office
The world of work seemed bright and full of promise when Donald Rosenthal, a gingery, newly minted Concordia University graduate,
stepped into a marketing position at the Montreal office of International Business Machines Ltd. (IBM) four years ago. Then, said Rosenthal, he swiftly discovered that being smart in an office “where 30 people were fighting for four
jobs” was not enough. Rosenthal said he was getting ready for a trip to a meeting in Toronto when he criticized parts of a sales promotion in which his boss had been involved. “The thing was,” he recalled, “I said it in front of my boss’s boss.” The senior boss dropped him from the IBM team going to Toronto headquarters, and although he stayed with the company for three years he eventually resigned and returned to university for postgraduate studies. Said Rosenthal: “I could see I wasn’t going to get anywhere. I know now I should have made my boss look good.” Instead, he became one of the many thousands of
Canadians who fall victim every day to the often-destructive forces of office politics which only a handful of them understand.
Critical: Office politics—from social intrigue by the water cooler to the corporate scuffling in the corner office —has been a fact of life, as Rosenthal discovered, ever since people first began working in groups. Peter Frost, an organizational behaviorist at the University of British Columbia, describes the phenomenon as “neither good nor bad, just
inevitable.” But rarely has it been so critical to Canada’s white-collar work force to know how to manoeuvre on the job. In the conservative 1980s, faced with high unemployment, rapidly changing skills requirements and the arrival of more women in positions of power, the denizens of the office maze are having to fight more strenuously than ever to protect their positions. Managers at all levels are disoriented by shutdowns, mergers and acquisitions which constantly redraw the corporate map. And the texture of office life is further complicated by the pressure from baby boomers who have reached
an age when they would normally expect promotion—only to find that their stillyoung bosses are firmly entrenched or that new management styles are making middle managers redundant.
But during the past five years—partly in response to the demand for a restoration of peace in the nation’s offices— there has been an explosion in the number of experts, firms and books offering help. Toronto industrial psychologist Jack McQuaig, for one, describes the training of personnel as “the fastest-
growing business in the world.” Indeed, the number of firms specializing in what most of them call “people skills” has mushroomed from only a few in 1980 to hundreds. Harry Kane, publisher of a Toronto-based semiannual guide to seminars for the corporate world, said that the annual revenue generated by such firms has increased to $150 million from $38 million in 1978. They range from the formidable MICA Management Centre Inc., whose head office on two floors of the Toronto Eaton Centre features oriental rugs, silver tea services and mahogany interiors, to Halifax’s People Development, which operates
with only three consultants and two support staff. A single day-long seminar offered by those firms can cost as much as $295.
Bloodless: At the same time, the struggle for office survival has spawned primers on new management styles and on how to succeed in the office which cram airport bookstalls and are fixtures in most corporate boardrooms. The most prominent remains the 1982 best seller In Search of Excellence, by two American management consultants, Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman : Jr., which describes most white-collar ! organizations as “bloodless, paper-driven” entities. Its successor, A Passion for j Excellence, appears likely to be an equally strong performer. The 1982 One Minute Manager, by U.S. psychologist Kenneth Blanchard and physician ; Spencer Johnson, a 96-page guide to j manager-employee relations, is now translated into 17 languages.
Even most university business departments now have on staff an expert in organizational behavior—the study of people in formal groups. And many firms such as the Toronto Dominion Bank and the Crown Life Insurance Co. have renamed their personnel departments “human resources departments” to reflect the new sensitivity to employee morale. The reason for the newfound focus on the problem, said Frost, “is that until the past 10 years power was a taboo subject.” And getting power is at the very root of most office conflicts.
For their part, company executives express concern that office power struggles have a direct, negative impact on employee morale and bottom-line profits. Competitiveness that is not channelled properly can be destructive. As a result, employee motivation and wellbeing is uppermost in the minds of most good managers. Indeed, a Conference Board of Canada survey last summer of 13 of the country’s most “influential” chief executive officers revealed that they considered “improving employee quality the major challenge at the moment.” Most worrisome to businesses is the increasing evidence of employee disenchantment: in a study last February, the European Management Forum, a think tank, found that Canadian workers came last in productivity and 18th in motivation in a list of 28 countries.
Victimization: The victims of office politics are legion. According to Donald Hathaway, president of the Institute of Management Consultants, 80 per cent of job failures are rooted in office politics. He added: “Forget the myth that if you work hard and are competent you will succeed automatically. Personal style, good relationships and being well-liked count as much as competency. Office politics is a fact of life. If you refuse to recognize it, you are leaving yourself open to victimization.” Indeed, the re-
suits of internal office struggles can be found in almost any company across the country. And the victims sometimes include the companies themselves. Some case studies:
• Sarah Cloutier was only 24 when she got her first job as the assistant to a director of a native rights group in 1974. One night while on a northern tour she was assigned a sleeping place for the
! night—a soiled mattress in a roomful of men. She said that she complained I about the conditions to her female superior and “I was never forgiven.” Once back in the office in Ottawa, her boss I began to criticize her for dressing too well and the next year she was demoted, although there had never been any comI plaint about her performance.
Cloutier ultimately changed careers, choosing the solitary calling of a realestate agent in Ottawa, where last year she earned $75,000. Still, she says she remains bitter about her early brush with office politics. “I was young and pregnant and I didn’t want to hurt the [Inuit] cause so I quit. I loved that job. It wasn’t fair.”
• Dan Moran, 41, enjoyed his job as the marketing manager of a large credit union in Vancouver two years ago. But that changed when a new general manager took over. Moran, who had been with the concern for five years, could not coexist with the new manager and his
j formal, tightly structured management style. “Not being a political animal,” said Moran, “I found it impossible to mask my true feelings. It became obvious there wasn’t going to be co-operation between the two of us and I was let go.” Moran, who went on to run a store specializing in children’s furniture, added: “When these things happen it gives you a lot of self-doubt. If they fire you they’re saying you’re no good. It was a very inhuman thing to do, but at the same time I felt it would only be selfdestructive to dwell on it.”
• Robert Callow, vice-president of ICG Utilities in Leduc, Alta., hired Toronto’s Harvey Silver, one of Canada’s leading people skills specialists, in 1982 to advise 160 employees and to improve “team spirit.” Silver’s mixture of corporate evangelism and common sense
i helped the staff to pull together. But Callow found that other problems were solved as well. An obese employee lost 100 lb., and a number of his workers who were afraid of public speaking formed a Toastmasters’ Club.
• H.C. (Kip) Roberts found that he had a highly demoralized, office staff when his Halifax firm, Harris & Roome Supply Ltd., the largest electrical wholesaler in the Maritimes, bought out a competitor and his employees doubled to 140 in 1983. “The new group coming in,” said Roberts, “were apprehensive and anxious about whether they could measure up, and the old employees felt
threatened by the new. There was great fear of the unknown. You could see it in their eyes.” Roberts spent $12,000 for the services of Halifax’s People Development, a consulting firm that has become so successful that it is now working on office problems as far away as Indonesia. He asked them to study the organization and make recommendations on how to improve the workings of the office. He plans to spend another $30,000 on employee development this year. Said Roberts: “I am confident the results will be positive.”
• I.H. (Izzy) Asper, chairman of CanWest Capital Corp., a Winnipeg company that owns 60 per cent of the Global Television Network, said that one major cause of tensions in an office is the executive “who follows his own agenda and commits the company to things that have nothing to do with the business.” He said that he knew of one executive who bought a $400,000 in-house computer system, although he knew it would be cheaper to rent one, because he wanted to enlarge his power. To get support for his purchase, he traded favors with other executives. But the company suffered because it “got stuck with a $400,000
computer plugged into somebody’s ego.”
• Albert Cohen, president of Gendis Inc., a Winnipeg company that owns department store chains and is a majority owner of Sony Canada, said that the company once had a treasurer who “played close to the vest” with information and forced senior executives to go to his office to be briefed. “Fortunately the controller resigned and joined the civil service,” said Cohen. “That was probably where he belonged—in a government bureaucracy.”
Thirty years ago American sociologist C. Wright Mills argued that life in the office was a matter of “feigning goodwill and repressing hostility.” Modern analysts advocate a more modest and straightforward approach to fellow workers. They add that the nature of office politics varies from company to company, from private sector to public sector and from culture to culture. One company may stress tradition while another prefers innovation. The major cause of stress in the public sector may be “underload”—too little work—while in the private sector it may be “burnout.”
There is also a consensus among experts that many of the problems are caused by the boss himself. A 1983 survey by the International Association of Business Communicators showed that 69.7 per cent of respondents said managers did not know how to communicate. As well, many office workers often do not know their job responsibilities. Robert Kent, president of Mansis Development Corp., a Winnipeg-based management consulting firm, using a 1982 survey by the federal auditor general, estimated that $300 million in salaries had been paid to federal employees confused about their job responsibilities. Declared Kent: “When people don’t know what they are supposed to do, they play games in an attempt to sniff out their roles.”
As well, companies often have rules that encourage personal office infighting. A 1982 Administrative Management Association survey revealed that 90 per cent of Canadian companies still had a dress code, 60 per cent had a grooming code and 20 per cent of companies sent employees home to alter their appearance when it offended company norms.
Still, although most Canadian workers will encounter office politics in their careers—indeed, will likely have to deal with it on a daily basis—many of them will never learn how to use their native strengths. Experts identify several common traps in which employees fall. Vancouver’s Frost, coeditor of the 1978 book Organizational Reality: Reports from the Firing Line, a compendium of articles about life in the workplace, said that the biggest single problem is a “failure to read between the lines” or
discover who really holds power in the office. He added that most people fail to make the “right alignments”: one result is that they support the loser in a power struggle.
Impressions: There are other dangers as well. One of those, said Deborah Castle, a counsellor at Halifax’s People Development, is “getting labelled.” Castle, whose clients include Shoppers’ Drug Mart and the federal fisheries branch in Halifax, said that first impressions of workers tend to become permanent. She cited the case of a young woman who begins work in an office with the idea of starting a family uppermost in her mind. “Even if she changes and wants to make a career, the label stays,” said Castle. Other damaging mistakes include making wrong assumptions about the political sympa-
thies of a superior and pretending to share them. As well, she added, many employees attach too little importance to dress codes, and underestimate the significance of such symbols as the positioning of an office (either a corner or the centre are the most “powerful” locations) or the time and place to have lunch. Others, said Castle, work too diligently and earn the distrust of peers.
For his part, Ottawa psychologist Frank Musten said that most people have trouble understanding the office norms—the rules and symbols of power —because they tend to be extremely obscure. Being late for work in the Ottawa scientific community is the norm, he said, because if the employee arrives on time “it appears as though you didn’t work late last night and are therefore not a hard worker.”
According to Hathaway, employees and managers alike have their own special roles in an organization. His own list includes the office gossip or “storyteller” who creates and spreads rumors. The “peacemaker” is able “to paper over the cracks in the walls” and forestall office conflict. He added that the office invariably has at least one employee “who goes around saying ‘this is the way we have always done things,’ and his role is to maintain the status quo.” Hathaway says that the office is also likely to have a “giver of rewards,” the person who is in charge of dispensing everything from vacations to paper clips; and an eccentric, a breaker of rules who is tolerated by the management because he is also creative.
Toronto’s Silver, whose 18-hour days advising corporations such as the CBC
and the Royal Bank have become legend in the Canadian human resources business (page 38), includes on his list of stereotypes the office “prima donna” who constantly demands attention. Other experts mention the office “falling star,” the person who is on the way out, the “comer,” the worker who is quickly gaining power, and the “assassin,” whose aim is to destroy office rivals.
Most consultants agree that there is one type in particular who inevitably gets into trouble—the “reformer.” He is a worker who wants to improve office styles or methods and insists on being honest with the boss even if it hurts his career and who refuses to make compromises in order to succeed. One reformer was an insurance company employee whose case was heard last winter by the Quebec Labour Relations Board. The
Montreal middle-level employee, who asked that his name not be used “because we have all suffered enough,” told an outside management troubleshooter, after being assured that his remarks would be kept in confidence, that his supervisor was incompetent. The superior found out about the remarks and promptly fired his critical subordinate. The worker won his case before the board and received damages, but only after selling his house and taking his daughter out of private school to enable him to pay legal fees.
Coalitions: Still, there is a great deal of advice available on how to win the office politics game. Hathaway recommends “aligning” with someone who already has power, although he adds that the person with strength may not always be the expected one. “The real
power in the office may lie with the receptionist or the person in the mail room,” he said. He added that “coalitions” have to be made for separate goals and he cites the case of an employee whose whole work week is engineered toward taking his child to summer camp on the weekend: “He’ll be gearing up all week to get off early on Friday and making the right coalitions to do that. But he’s also interested in scrounging things for the kid’s camping experience, so he will make a coalition with the office carpenter.”
Hathaway also says that workers have to learn to bargain effectively. That skill, he says, includes the “ability to make threats credible without overthreatening (threatening things that cannot be accomplished) or underthreatening.” The good bargainer
should learn to “control the other’s level of uncertainty—each player wants to be able to predict the other while limiting the other’s ability to predict.” And he says that the time-tried device of flattery also works. “Go to someone for advice. Bounce ideas off him. That coopts him,” he adds. For a worker whose job takes him out of the office, Hathaway advises, “Make sure you come into the office at lunchtime and be seen from time to time.”
Mushy: William Wilkerson, executive assistant to Toronto Mayor Art Eggleton, whose former employers include the American telecommunications giant ITT, the CBC and the Royal Bank, said that he became keenly aware of office struggles during his career. And he said that employees should simply ignore them. He added: “The best thing is to have a straightforward professional attitude and not get cynical. Don’t get involved in games. For instance I had one simple rule: if somebody said they were telling me something for my own good I told them, ‘Don’t bother.’ It’s always bad information, mushy information. The one way to survive is not to care too much if you survive.”
But some office problems seem likely to continue to affect both managers and employees. One is the stress caused by the introduction of high technology, “a new player in the game of office politics,” said UBC’s Frost. “Someone who can use it creates expertise and power. It takes power away from people who used to be in demand.” Donald Rosenthal, who after his unfortunate experience with IBM went on to become an office consultant, added, “People say you’re taking my baby away from me and giv-
ing it to a machine, and they say, ‘No way.’ ”
The changing contour of male-female relationships has also complicated office life. Said Hathaway: “There is now a larger number of equals in the office. Things such as the ‘office affair’ are different. It used to be a matter of lust fuelled by alcohol, a quick fling behind the filing cabinet involving an ‘inferior’ woman and a ‘superior’ man.” Now, he declared, “with men and women on the same level, people are falling in love. That attracts a great deal of attention in the office, and organizations don’t know what to do with this. Sometimes they just fire them both.”
Assertive: Along with the traditional management consulting firms, troubled office managers can now get help from smaller, newer groups, often in the form of training sessions and seminars. One of the largest and most dynamic of the
new firms is MICA Managment Centre. The company began in 1971 with a working capital of $200 and two training courses and now offers seminars on 66 topics attended by about 10,000 people a year in Toronto alone.
The 17-member staff, supplemented by guest speakers, also offers seminars in Calgary, Ottawa and Montreal. A two-member partnership, MICA will not divulge its earnings. It offers courses on computer use and office management, but the most popu-
lar courses are “Stress Management,” ‘‘Advanced Stress Management” and “Assertive Management” for which, said the executive vicepresident, Carol Brickenden, “we cannot fill the demand.”
Another company that has done well is Achieve Enterprises Ltd. Founded by consultant R.A. McNeil in Edmonton in 1978, the company has expanded to Mississauga, Ont., Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal. It offers “skill development processes for all levels and positions in an organization,” and since 1980 has, on average, doubled its earnings each year, The company has sold its “Towards Excellence”
program, prepared in conjunction with Thom-
as Peters of In Search of Excellence fame, to 150 Canadian companies and governments.
Habits: So far, businesses report mainly positive results from bringing in consultants. Marvin Goodman, chairman of Lipton’s fashionwear, with 375 employees, 28 stores across the country and a Toronto factory, for one, spends at least $15,000 a year on consultants and he invites seamstresses to come from the factory floor to attend board meetings and take part in decision-making. “Without people you are a one-man stand,” said Goodman. “This hasn’t eliminated conflict but it does minimize it—though sometimes we flip back to old habits.”
But all the books and consultants in the world cannot blunt human instincts. Said Vancouver victim of office politics Dan Moran: “It happens in every business, even my own small business with a
few employees. It’s the way of the world.” Added Canadian human resources pioneer Gordon Shave of Vancouver, one of the first to specialize in office problems and motivation: “It’s both
sad and embarrassing that you have to spend all that money and all that time just to get people to understand how to talk to each other.”