Fear and loathing in the workplace

26 February 2015 -


Managers who rely upon office politics to succeed are bound to bully their organisations into the arms of mediocrity, argues a behavioural expert

Nick Wragg

Thirty years ago, Dr Hunter S Thompson – if you don’t know who he is, it’s time to broaden your horizons – wrote a witheringly insightful interpretation of the 1972 US presidential race between Democratic challenger George McGovern and the incumbent Republican President Richard Nixon. This was politics at its best, and therefore at its worst. Thompson’s book, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, is a must-read for any manager, tainted as they will inevitably be by organisational politics.

Now, before the righteous among you deny that such a thing exists, or claim that somehow you are immune to such forces, let me state this clearly and slowly: the truth is that you show me a manager who denies ever engaging in such politics, and I will show you either a liar or an underachieving failure. That’s the rule of the game, and this is backed up by some objective research – just ask any employee. That is exactly what I do each new academic year with my students. I ask: “Have you ever worked for a great manager? Take ‘great’ to mean whatever you want.” To date, no one has ever given an unqualified “Yes, I have”. Their reaction is overwhelming and sobering. Much of UK management is despised and pitied in equal measure, and is simply not up to the task of managing.

Brutal facts

Part of the problem is the lack of good training, which means human beings are unable to harness the wisdom in academic theory and apply it to the workplace.

Let’s put that to the test. In his excellent book Good to Great, Jim Collins advocates the need for a company to “confront the brutal facts”.

Take it from me: total candour from employees is not one of the traits most managers find entirely desirable. They can’t handle the truth. Political operators, whether or not they are aware of their skills, aren’t interested in confronting any facts, brutal or otherwise. Too many managers are selfish. Anything that threatens their position or power base is squashed like a fly on a loaf of bread – a time-honoured hallmark of bullying in the workplace.

This selfishness breeds mediocrity. Mediocre management throttles creativity and any hint of greatness. Yet most organisations embrace mediocrity.

“Smash the system”

And the need to play politics leads to even worse: managers who say one thing and do another. This treachery is because managers are scared of losing everything they have. The problem is not, as Collins would have it, finding the right people. The people are fine. What is needed are the right managers. This is where management training has a crucial role to play – it helps managers transfer theory to the coalface and rise above the organisational politics that tarnish every business at some point or another.

The best leaders smash the system. You can’t break the game while you are in it. I recall a particularly poor manager whose career plan was based on shouting at people, getting promoted through fear, then working tirelessly on being made redundant. This ambition was fulfilled when someone finally realised the enormous folly of him being in charge. The last I heard he had retired early on the back of some huge payout, and spent the rest of his days painting his garage floor.

Collins makes perfect sense. But corporate constraints mean a combination of humility, honesty and determination will only get you as far as McGovern, who came third in a two-horse race.

In the face of organisational politics, the good guys never come first. Unless they learn how to break out.

Nick Wragg is a lecturer in business and behaviour at the Grimsby University Centre, a business coach and management consultant

Leading With Political Astuteness, a study for CMI, found that many managers could become better leaders if they enhanced their political skills. Read the report

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