Office Politics: Overcome The Office Shark

Politics Again

Jeanine locked her office door and let her smile collapse. She was so angry! Ambushed again, by that jerk Pat. Why did Pat have to undermine everything she did? They were on the same team! But no…each time she managed to get a proposal approved, Pat began talking it down, in public, to anyone who would listen Jeanine knew she had to put a stop to it. What could she do?

Have you been in Jeanine’s shoes? Or perhaps I should say Jeanine’s swimsuit; Pat is a classic office Shark.

Why Be A Shark?

In the Political Animals framework, personal and positional power determine each person’s level of influence. Their behaviours determine what animal they are. The Shark is a classic high personal power/low positional power type. Compared to peers, their position doesn’t give them much control over resources. Instead, the shark pursues power by publicly attacking coworkers.  The Shark sees work as a zero-sum game. If you win, they must be losers. To prevent that, they undermine your project, telling anyone who listen about its flaws and your failings. Worse yet, they do it in the open: during management meetings, in the break room, and in the hallway.

Play High Road Politics

The Shark can lead you to doubt yourself, and can destroy your confidence.  Don’t fall for it! Two strategies can help you put the Shark in his or her place. Either swim around the Shark with good stakeholder management or hit back with facts. Stay on the high road: don’t descend to the Shark’s level of personal attacks and half-truths. Protect your most important asset: your reputation for honesty. Whichever strategy you choose, believe in yourself.

Stakeholder Management

Stakeholder management is an essential business skill. A stakeholder is anyone affected by your actions, inside or outside the company. Whether you’re keeping your manager happy or showing customers and colleagues that they can trust you, you are managing your stakeholders. Do it well and they turn into advocates and allies. When the Shark attacks, use these powerful allies who openly support you and your project. Sharks stop their attack when a senior person says ‘I disagree.’ Good stakeholder management chases away the Shark.

Jeanine’s project stakeholders included the Shark’s department head, Margarida. If Jeanine had invested time in explaining her project’s benefits to her, Margarida could have stopped Pat’s sharking as soon as she heard it.

Facing the Facts

You can also confront the Shark yourself. It is essential that you stay calm while doing this! Confronting the Shark means playing politics your way, not the Shark’s.  Despite the temptation, don’t call the Shark a jerk. Instead, present some unarguable facts supporting your position. State them strongly, without hedging. This is the figurative poke in the Shark’s eye that stops the attack.

When Pat said ‘I don’t see any benefit to this idea,’ Jeanine could have responded with,  ‘Were you aware that we have already saved 10% in your department during the pilot project, and that Margarida endorsed expanding it?’ Pat is not likely to keep attacking when it’s clear that doing so will be against Margarida’s wishes; that’s no way to build power. And Pat is definitely trying to build power!

Turn Your Shark Into A Goldfish

Don’t expect to make the Shark your friend or ally. They aren’t interested in you, only in themselves. Make it clear to the Shark that attacking you is a no-win strategy and the attacks will stop. Your Great White Shark will shrink to a goldfish when it’s clear that you can’t be intimidated and have truth on your side.

Marne Platt

Dr. Marne Platt is the President of Fundamental Capabilities and the author of 3 books (so far): Living Singlish: Your Life, Your Way; Professional Presence; and PREP For Success. Originally a practicing veterinarian, she built a successful career in the pharmaceutical industry. She founded Fundamental Capabilities to ‘pay it forward’ by providing career development workshops and coaching for women. ‘Living Singlish: Your Life, Your Way’ is an ‘older sister in your pocket’ packed full of advice for young women on building their own independent and exciting life. 'Professional Presence' and PREP For Success' help you strengthen your spoken and unspoken communication and leadership presence.

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