The psychopathology of office politics

Oliver James' advice for workers on ‘how to thrive in a world of lying, backstabbing and dirty tricks’ merely reinforces the navel-gazing of today's atomised workforce.

Para Mullan

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In his latest book, Office Politics: How to Thrive in a World of Lying, Backstabbing and Dirty Tricks, the psychologist Oliver James claims there are 600,000 psychopaths in Britain. Only 15,000 of them are in prison, which means you could well be sitting next to one. Perhaps you are one.

James argues that most of these psychopaths can be found in the workplace. He warns us that there are not only psychopaths roaming through Britain’s open-plan offices; there are also Machiavels and narcissists. He calls these character types the ‘Dark Triad’. So, you have: the psychopaths – uncaring people who are oblivious to the effect they have on others; Machiavels – cold and manipulative; and narcissists – the ‘me, me, me’ people.

Drawing on some 50 interviews, James uses the first half of his book to demonstrate how the members of this ‘Dark Triad’ manifest themselves in daily office life. He does this by looking at the toxic nature of organisations in sectors such as television and the rest of the media in great detail. And in the second part, he advises us how to get by without ourselves succumbing to the deadly trio. At times, he tells us, we normal folk have to play dirty, too.

James’ advice is what many would construe as common sense. He says that if you are astute – if you are able to read other people well; if you cultivate and nurture people at work; if you are good at networking; and if you understand the necessity of being a chameleon – then you will probably thrive better than the employee who just carries out his daily tasks without taking into account the interplay of relationships in the office environment. Such points are hardly controversial. For example, Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University, agrees with James that while in a ‘utopian world where business is 100 per cent transparent, it is just possible to kiss goodbye to office politics, in the real world that’s like “walking without breathing”’.  

Yet there’s more than stating the obvious to James’ book; there is also the promotion of some of today’s very worrying workplace prejudices and trends. For a start, James has keyed into the individuated, fragmented nature of the current workplace. By focusing on the interpersonal relations between employee and employee, and between employee and manager, he exacerbates the contemporary obsession with such things and reinforces the narcissism he is supposedly warning against. The preoccupation with how each of us feels about our daily working life, how we feel about our treatment by fellow employees and by our managers, obscures the essence of what work is. 

While how people are treated at work is not unimportant, the themes identified by this book need to be placed within the broader context of the changing landscape of the workplace in recent decades. There has much change, and sadly not all of it for the better.

When I came to Britain at the end of the Seventies, there was a clear distinction between employers and managers and the rest of the workforce. Even in the public sector, where I worked, there was a ‘shop floor’ culture of ‘them’ and ‘us’. It was almost unquestioned that workers would come together collectively, partly by joining trade unions. So, shop stewards represented us if we fell out with management; there were disputes over pay and working conditions; and there were occasions when we went on strike in support of employees in other organisations. In short, there was a sense of solidarity, a feeling that we were in it together in opposition to the management. 

Work also gave us an identity – in my case, I was a nurse – but it was also a means to an end. Our pay cheque at the end of the month allowed us some leisure-time freedom. There was a distinction between our public life, in terms of our work, and our private life. You very rarely saw management even attempt to interfere with our private lives.

This view of work has disappeared. Since the 1980s at least, worker-manager lines have become blurred, and the number of areas of our lives in which managers feel able to interfere has expanded. The growth of the service industries has partly helped to make the nature of work more amorphous: everyone at work is expected to adopt a service-experience outlook and a lot of time is spent on one-to-one interactions with your ‘customers’, inside as well as outside your organisation. 

Work is no longer a source of our identity, whichever sector we work in. Yet at the same time, we have become more obsessed with the impact work has upon us. Hence the focus on the experience of work, wherein the workplace has been transformed from a place of production into an arena in which we play out our emotions and feelings. The workplace has become a hothouse where people are preoccupied with their relationships with each other. It is this culture that James captures in his interviews. 

We have Charlie, the trader, who acted his way throughout his employment at a financial institution, suffered several personal crises, spending a day crying in bed, but did not have anyone to turn to at work. There is Bill, a project producer in a film production company, working with an assistant director Rat, whom James identifies as a psychopath and a Machiavel. 

There’s the example of a school where all the teachers knew their new head was manipulative, to the extent that they were all being micro-assessed, but they did not use their collective strength to do anything about it. And little wonder: the sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’, of solidarity, does not exist in the same way it once did. Instead, the ‘look after number one’ approach prevails, which serves to exacerbate individuals’ isolation in the workplace. 

The sense of isolation is also deepened by the proliferation of codes of conduct in the workplace. These tell you how to behave, what you can and can’t say, and what will get you into trouble.  There are now reams of information and advice making employees ‘aware’ of stress, harassment and bullying. Harassment has become a catch-all term for anything that causes some distress and anxiety. It includes both overt bullying and also just being ‘stressed out’, in the sense of working hard and having lots to do. 

The definition of ‘bullying’ has been broadened, too. Any unpleasant and negative encounters, like being excluded from meetings or social events, someone making unwanted eye contact, or just being smiled at in the wrong way, can now be construed as bullying. Furthermore, it is how a person feels, rather than a more objective set of criteria, that defines whether an act or experience is harmful. Now, instead of disputes over pay or jobs, there are disputes about the way we behave with each other, employee to employee, manager to employee. 

The formalisation of how workers should behave has robbed the workforce of the ability to have a trustful, closer relationship among themselves. On the surface it appears that more attention is being given to the workforce. However, this attention is usually in the form of emotional support to employees who may have been ‘bullied’, ‘harassed’, or who are ‘feeling stressed’ because of someone or something, usually their workload. It is the equivalent of treating employees like children or victims, rather than as individuals who can deal with unpleasantness at work. 

James’ book does not challenge this culture at the workplace. Rather it complements it. Its dubious aim is to help us improve our tactics and develop the nous for surviving at work, yet in taking such a focus it ends up reinforcing the feeling of atomisation in the modern workplace. 

Para Mullan is a HR professional.

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