Saturday, December 20, 2008

The death of office politics

A new generation of workers refuses to play the game.

In the 1980s, I wrote four books on office politics. My mission was to help people working for corporations succeed, especially 20-somethings but also MBAs who saw upward mobility within Fortune 500 companies as the American dream.

My advice was based on the assumption that everyone’s career goal was to get into management and rise to the top. It seems laughable today, but back then, counselors coached college graduates to say in interviews that they aspired to be CEO of the company one day.

In my books, I explained how to position oneself for promotions, protect against predators, build alliances, and influence everyone to maximise positive impact on the organisation.

How two decades have changed corporate culture! As Boomers competed for management jobs in the 1980s, they developed rules of engagement on how they conducted business (see “The rules” at bottom). Since they were the largest group, others adapted. But as more and more new employees entered the workplace, they began making clear that they didn’t want — or need — to please Boomers in order to fulfill their goals. As a result, office politics became less important in organisations.

And your newest hires are even less connected to the interpersonal networks and hierarchies of information that have always driven advancement. Today’s 20- and 30-year-olds disdain careers in large companies as “so last century.” They have eviscerated organisational politics everywhere with one highly effective technique: non-participation. They don’t share Boomer values, goals, or loyalties — so they won’t play Boomer politics.

But can they buy out entirely? Sure. They see a different reality.

A generation ago, office politics rested on one shared assumption: You and I must accommodate and cooperate because we’re going to be working together for the long term, and since upward mobility seemed the best game in town, if I alienate peers and subordinates my career will tank. Today, only people over 45 share those assumptions.

Office politics has died in non-profits and most branches of government, as well. Twenty-somethings view working for either as a period of public service, not a career. I talked to a federal-government agency director who told me how he was trying to give a 26-year-old hire some insights into the mores and politics of the agency, a look at how work got done.

The director explained that although he had always hated agency politics, it was reality. He’d accepted the politics and learned to play the game. His new colleague asked, “How long have you been here?” “Thirty years,” said the director. The young man looked at him in shock and said, “You hate a big part of your job and you’re here 30 years? I wouldn’t stay three weeks if I hated any part of it.” Over the past two decades, as younger workers have eschewed office politics, a new set of realities has permeated. Here’s what today’s generations are contemplating as they gather — or, more likely, don’t gather — at the water cooler.

Power redefined

In its traditional form — that is, via corporate hierarchy —power is irrelevant to today’s generation, not to mention that it takes too much time and effort to acquire. Younger workers’ definition of power within an organisation (a murky concept at best) does not mean power over people, or managing them. Management comes with a lot of unneeded, stress-inducing responsibility. There is no prestige in it. Furthermore, younger workers believe that if you don’t own the business, you’re a fool to work too hard for it — a likely throwback to their parents’ disappointment in layoffs and the decline of big companies.

For new generations, self-employment — that is, economic control of their own lives — is their only goal. Few are interested in climbing a corporate ladder even if Bill Gates or Steve Jobs (both Boomers) built the rungs. Of course, more than half of the young are likely to remain in corporate jobs anyway, but that’s irrelevant, because right now, they don’t believe that. They will work as hard as possible to get out of corporate America. For example, I have worked with several trade unions that find younger workers eager to get in apprenticeship programmes but unwilling to be active in the union. They pay dues, but when asked why they aren’t active, they explain that they’ll be gone as soon as they can.

But won’t they have to manage people when they are self-employed? Of course, but when I asked a focus group of 20-somethings about that, they explained that they would hire employees like themselves — people who didn’t need to be managed.

Today, power and prestige are based on knowledge and skills. It’s therefore no surprise that younger employees look to learn all they can at someone else’s expense by finding a steep upward learning curve to shorten the road to self-employment. Consequently, altruism in corporate America is dead. Younger workers will help older ones only if they receive help in return. If a 25-year-old and a 55-year-old in neighbouring cubicles are able to mesh seamlessly through mutual help and mentoring, it has nothing to do with office politics or a company’s best interests and everything to do with personal gain. Sure, the younger employee may be helping his colleague with computer software issues, but only so long as his co-worker continues to provide useful tips on how to avoid their mutual supervisor’s wrath.

What’s more, today’s younger workers switch jobs, even careers, as often as they can to acquire new skills. Otherwise, there’s too little learning and too much repetition. “Job hopper” is no longer a negative characterisation. In fact, few under 40 even know what that means. One 28-year-old, considered a rising star in marketing at a Fortune 50 company, opted to leave for an advertising-agency job when informed that he’d be reworking his company’s advertising campaign for another 18 months. “Eighteen months!” he thought. “What could I learn from that?” His boss saw the project as a means of “seasoning” an untried employee, but in the young man’s view, seasoning is something reserved for meat.

Meanwhile, the young who do participate successfully in office politics tend to be ethnic and racial minorities. Corporate success is still their definition of “making it” because they often have fewer opportunities to succeed; when they do, they feel all the more accomplished. Recent immigrants especially appear impressed with the bigness of a company — many see bigness alone as an assurance of their job security.

Go team!

Many 20- and 30-somethings consider teamwork a fiction perpetrated by the old to get them to do someone else’s work. “Why should I stay late to help Mary catch up? She should work faster and stop socialising.” If you personally get the result, that’s what should count in your performance appraisal.

Your ideas and opinions are none of anyone’s business. It all goes back to high school, where there’s been a growing emphasis on individual, not team, sports. Football and basketball discriminate on the basis of size, but tennis and swimming are individual sports that give participants more control over one’s environment, effort, and outcomes.

Then there’s perhaps the main reason for rejection of teamwork: While organisations may talk teamwork, they still reward the stars.

They also tend to keep “houseplants”— people who have long ceased to be productive but who management consider too difficult to dislodge. Every corporation, despite multiple culls, has some. The houseplants tend to be old, good politicians. Don’t expose people under 30 to them.

The young will never fail to comment publicly on the houseplant’s lack of productivity. They hate to see money wasted, even if it isn’t theirs. The lack of productivity doesn’t bother Boomers as much because they’ve worked with the houseplants forever and may like them personally. They may sympathise with a co-worker who’s taking a productivity break.

Perhaps you’re reading all this and feel these issues might best be discussed at your company in a meeting. Think again.

Boomers love meetings: They provide a chance to stand out, to gently compete or score off an opponent, to exchange intelligence (gossip!) — in short, to play office politics. During meetings, everyone must have an opinion and must state it. That’s what participation means. As Boomers turn to one another and ask, “What do you think?” they expect fellow attendees to articulate an opinion. But younger workers do not have random opinions, nor do they express them in meetings. In fact, they would prefer not to meet at all and duck meetings whenever possible. They know the Boomer bosses will do what they want regardless, so why waste time formulating and expressing an opinion?

At the end of a meeting, consensus must be reached. Once a course of action has been determined, everyone must cooperate. Meetings are supposed to ensure everyone’s buy-in — never mind that they really don’t because the younger workers are not committed to the outcome. It’s not their agenda, their meeting, their interest, or their future. They believe that if they choose to say nothing, the meeting will end sooner. (It never does, but they keep hoping.)

As a result, Boomers think their younger colleagues are withholding ideas out of spite. The more tactful among the young will occasionally toss in a tidbit as protective colouration, but they are not committed participants — nor can you force them to be. The young say, “Just tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it,” and believe they’ve cooperated fully. They see no value in meeting face-to-face when e-mail is so much easier, more efficient, and less personal. The definition of efficiency is age-related. Most e-mail isn’t as efficient as a telephone call but at least allows you to control contact. It lets you slow or disallow contact on your own terms — and younger people love that.

Organisations would do well to schedule fewer meetings by urging suggestions and distributing routine information via e-mail. Save meetings for truly important issues. Make the face-to-face special, not routine. A meeting that is called to give people information they could have or should have gotten on Google wastes participants’ time.

Likewise, re-think your orientation and training programmes. Update your understanding of how young people prefer to learn. Do you really need to use classroom-style training, with its slow drip of information and reminiscences of Boomers eager to share their experiences? Instead, put the information on a DVD and tell people to study it in the style with which they’re most comfortable.

Talking it out

Boomers like to speak euphemistically, not directly. It softens bad news or direct orders. Boomers — more so than other generations — tend to be sensitive to other people’s feelings, so they try to appear conciliatory and drop hints rather than simply order someone to do things. It’s nicer. The problem is: younger workers don’t get it. They are not suggestible. They respond only to direct orders. If a Boomer boss says to his Boomer subordinate, “This needs to be done,” the employee understands that is an order, not a suggestion, and he does it. But if a 50-year-old says the same to a 35-year-old, the younger worker hears a suggestion, not an order.

The boss must spell out exactly what she wants done, no suggestions allowed. Otherwise, seeming observations and suggestions by the boss lessen the younger employee’s responsibility for outcomes: if the work isn’t what the boss wanted, it’s because the boss’s orders weren’t clear and complete. This is as close to wielding power as the young come.

Younger employees prefer bluntness. Make no assumptions about what they are thinking. Ask. They will tell you. They are not Boomers-in-waiting and as teenagers didn’t have the same work history or experience the Boomers had. How likely is it that your fresh-from-college hires have worked a minimum-wage service job? Their knowledge of how other people feel or what they expect is limited to peers, parents and teachers. So what you identify in the young as a highly developed sense of entitlement is really simple ignorance based on a lack of work experience.

Every second Boomer in corporate America is full of tales of younger workers’ repulsive expectations. But the young see a different reality: if you’ve always been treated fairly — and when you weren’t, your parents fixed it — that’s your reality as well as your expectation. So when young people enter the workforce, their high expectations are shattered — and nothing instills a lust for power like being a low person on the totem pole.

For Boomers who are distressed, even indignant, at the casual indifference they see in younger workers, try enforcing whichever rules of engagement you feel work best at your organisation. What values do you want the young to buy into, and what outcomes would show they had done so? Unless top management is committed to rewarding a shift in values, it won’t work.

Essentially, train and reward those who follow your playbook. Ditto, attitude. Reward those who display the workplace values you want and punish those who don’t. You can’t make the young into Boomers, but maybe you can make them act like Boomers — at least until they move on.

The rules

Though today’s younger’s workers can — and are — opting out of traditional office politics, are they doing so to their advantage?

That depends. If their time at a company will be short, then they need not play the game.

But the problem is that a good many younger people despite their initial intentions remain at organisations for two, three or more years.

By shunning the conventions of office politics, they risk burning bridges.

So because you never know how long you’ll be at a firm, I’d still advise sticking to the same old directives.

And just what are those rules? They’re the same today as they were two decades ago: seven principles for managing power and politics in organisations based on the philosophy of Niccolò Machiavelli, the class theorist in the field.

They are as follows:

You must win cooperation and support from peers, competitors and subordinates. To do this, you must show how what you want benefits the individual whose help you need. The successful politician’s mindset is: “What can I do for you that will make you want to do it my way?”

Establish peer relationships with everyone if you want them to help you. Submerge all thoughts that be cause you are better educated and hold a higher rank you’re entitled to respect. In politics, all players are equal.

Plugging into and monitoring the grapevine is the way to establish an early-warning system.Today’s younger people, however, don’t participate in, or care about, or even believe in the grapevine. It’s all purposeless gossip to them. To them, hints are an extension of the fuzzy thinking and ill-defined instructions that bosses deal in.

Who cares what people are agitating about? Since the grapevine depends on credibility and majority participation, they feel it isn’t a reliable source of information if a quarter of the organisation hears nothing that doesn’t come directly from the boss.

But it’s imperative that you know what people are thinking about organisational issues. Too many young people and managers (though not the truly powerful) disdain office gossip. “Petty stuff” or “personal triv,” they say. Wrong! The grapevine is 85 percent accurate, and that’s a conservative estimate.

It also carries the word from the grassroots. Unless you are plugged in, events will surprise you, causing you to react impulsively and undermine your position.

That said, if younger workers will hear or spread gossip at all, these days they’re more likely to do so on a blog, some social-networking website, or via texting with friends in other organisations. It seems to give younger workers a great deal of pleasure and a sense of control to ignore the grapevine at work while blasting the company online.

You owe your co-workers and boss absolutely predictable behaviour. If you asked workers at every level which boss and/or co-worker bothered them most, they would say, “The one who goes crazy over a missed deadline one month and does not respond that way the next month. I can never figure out how he will react or what he really cares about.” Be transparent.

Give all the credit and take all the blame. The power position is giving credit, not getting it. People who solicit praise for their work either have ego deficits or no desire for power or both. The grapevine knows who did the work. Haven’t you seen the credit-mongers come undone when someone asks a question and they have to turn to a subordinate to answer it? The need for adulation is an infallible sign of insecurity and undermines people’s confidence in your judgement.

Anticipate other people’s needs before they voice them. Here’s another reason to listen to the grape vine: Every gripe you hear represents an unmet need and an opportunity to go one-on-one with someone to meet that need in exchange for help now or in the future. Surely you remember the Godfather movies? The favours given and returned constitute office politics at its best.

Keep your ego hermetically sealed in an old mayo jar. In other words, suck it up. Effective people display less ego. Nobody can aggravate you unless you agree to be aggravated. No one can insult you without your willing participation. Remember, work is a role.

You are not what you do for a living. Most of the people you work with don’t know you well enough to dislike you personally; that privilege is reserved for family and friends. Disliking what you do in the workplace isn’t the same as disliking you personally. By the way, why do you care whether you’re liked? Isn’t respect enough?

The score is kept from results only. The motto in the 1980s was, “Get the result.” It still is today. Effort never counts, and there are no such things as worthwhile failures. All failures look pretty much the same. Process-oriented people, those determined to do things the right way, are rarely flexible or creative enough to dream up solutions that get results.

How much or little you like people is not important; what counts is how well you work with them. It doesn’t matter if you love what you do so long as you appear to love it. It doesn’t matter if you’re sincere. Some fairly terrible things, like giving someone your honest opinion, are done in the name of sincerity.

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Author : Marilyn Moats Kennedy

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