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21 Dirty Tricks at Work Phipps en 4726


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• The best way to protect yourself against dirty tricks at the office is to know about them in advance. Recognizing dirty workplace tricks diminishes their power. • Politicking, manipulation and Machiavellian managers exist in every office.

• Office manipulators assign “fall guys” to lead positions on failing projects, and ask “scapegoats” to present things that are controversial or unpleasant.

• Allowing someone else to fail in order to further your own agenda is a dirty trick. • Office thieves take others’ ideas and present them as their own.

• People avoid responsibility by refusing to say exactly what they mean, being oblique and even mumbling.

• Office bullies withhold and conceal information, and keep others out of the loop. • Claiming that “my hands are tied” in the face of company rules or a higher authority

can be a way to withdraw support or play favorites.

• People use e-mail to circulate nasty rumors, accusations and false information. • The dirtiest tricks include office blackmail and restructuring with the intention of

squeezing someone out of a job.

8 9 8 8

21 Dirty Tricks at Work

How to Beat the Game of Office Politics

by Mike Phipps and Colin Gautrey Capstone © 2005

260 pages

Leadership & Mgt. Strategy Sales & Marketing Finance

Human Resources IT, Production & Logistics

Career Development

Small Business Economics & Politics Industries Intercultural Mgt. Concepts & Trends



What You Will Learn

In this Abstract, you will learn: 1) How people in the workplace manipulate, bully and take advantage of others; 2) What to do if you are on the receiving end of a dirty trick; and 3) How to confront an office trickster and maintain your integrity.


Thinking that the only thing you have to do at the offi ce is good work is naïve. Every company has people who will stop at nothing to further their own agendas. Hiding your head in the sand (or behind your computer screen) only makes you an easy target. Instead, learn about the common dirty tricks played in offi ces and protect yourself from becoming a victim. To outmaneuver the manipulators, getAbstract recommends reading this clever, short introductory course on offi ce politics. Organizational experts Mike Phipps and Colin Gautrey have done the research for you, identifying the most common and insidious dirty tricks, and outlining strategies for putting up your defenses or, when appropriate, confronting the attackers. Oftentimes, simply exposing the trick reduces its potency and sends the perpetrator scurrying back into the shadows.


Dirty Tricks

Do you dream of working in an organization that is totally devoid of office politicking, maneuvering and Machiavellian managers? Alas, such a workplace simply does not exist. Every person is vulnerable to “dirty tricks” of one kind or another. Office politics, lies and tricks cost organizations money, divert focus and energy away from business, and turn bright, enthusiastic employees into cynical, tired clock-punchers. However, if you can learn to recognize common workplace dirty tricks, you can diminish their power and deal with duplicitous behavior to gain an advantageous outcome. For a maneuver to be a dirty trick, these “conditions” must prevail:

• The belief that honest behavior will not produce results. • A “player” feels it is his or her right to exploit someone else. • A prize is on the line or a circumstance is ripe for manipulation. • Information gets deliberately distorted or misdirected.

• Selfi sh motives masquerade as helpfulness.

• Self-interest trumps the interests of the organization.

• The situation has a loser or victim, and a winner or protagonist.

If you are the victim of a dirty trick, first ask yourself a tough question: What factor in your behavior left you vulnerable to an overt or covert office attack? Next, control your emotions. No matter how upset you are or how bad you feel, responding emotionally will only give more power to the trick’s architect. Get your facts straight and gather whatever information you can about the situation. Then decide if it is worth a fight. Sometimes not responding is a more perceptive political move. If you decide to confront the perpetrator, be calm, cool and focused on business. Ask questions that get to the heart of the matter. Give the person room to respond positively and open doors to working together constructively in the future. Even if you don’t get the results you hoped for, you will establish your own integrity and prove that you are no pushover.

“By their very nature…all organizations are political.” “Political game playing has increased. Regardless of job titles, everyone knows who the powerful people are and navigates accordingly.”


Beware of Sinking Ships

Projects sometimes fail and, when they do, rats abandon the sinking ship. That is a fact of organizational life. One dirty trick those rats play is assigning a victim to a lead position on a failing project. Higher-ups present the assignment as a “development opportunity” when, in reality, the victim is being set up as the “fall guy.” If you find yourself in this no-win situation, approach it as you would any turnaround opportunity. Be aware, though, of the difference between a “standard project failure” and an “intended failure.” Learn to differentiate between your allies and your enemies. To protect yourself, decide what you are willing to accept as a minimum outcome. Identify your supporters and ascertain what you can count on them to do.

Bystanders, Thieves and Avoiders

Just as a person can lie by omission, a person can do harm by doing nothing. In the office, this is the trick of choosing to watch someone flounder or fail. This is particularly insidious when the perpetrator has the power and resources to help, but feels it is advantageous to let the victim fall.

Imagine this scenario: An enthusiastic employee bumps into her superior in the lunchroom, and shares an idea to cut costs and improve her project. The boss smiles indulgently but tells his subordinate all the reasons why her idea won’t work. He says it has been tried before or it won’t save enough money to be worthwhile. Then, he turns around and presents the very same idea to his boss as if it’s his own. No matter what spin you put on it, this is thievery and the victim often feels powerless. If someone offers to guide your idea or proposal through the system, “gently resist” and insist that you would like to present your own work.

Sometimes, powerful people are reluctant to make decisions. Other times, they do not intend to use a subordinate’s proposal, but they don’t want to face the unpleasant prospect of saying “no.” Therefore, they request additional information or more research. This busy work wastes time, money and energy. If you hear “tell me more” from your boss, ask a few questions, such as, “What will it take to convince you to go ahead with this?” or “How much time and energy should I invest?” If you don’t get a direct answer, it might be time to move on to something else.

Double Speak and Insinuation

Has this ever happened to you? You see someone’s lips moving and you hear words coming out, but you can’t discern what the person is saying. If so, you might be a loser in the game of “indirectly yours.” This dirty trick is under way when people avoid responsibility by refusing to say exactly what they mean. Instead, they hint, hedge, haw and mumble, hoping you will somehow get the message. The best way to counter this trick is by asking specific questions.

When a colleague or superior asks you to make a sacrifice today for a payoff tomorrow, beware. If the reward is implied, you probably won’t ever see it. The real agenda is to have you take an assignment you ordinarily would reject. Test this theory by asking specific questions about the reward or the consequences of turning down the project. “Hey Bill, I’m behind you 100%, but we’ll never get this past corporate.” Perhaps you

do have your boss’s support, and the higher-ups really are a challenge. Or, this might be a case of implied but nonexistent support. If your boss won’t support you, other issues could be at play. Try saying, “Bob, thanks for your concern but I am relatively unfazed about dealing with the boss. I wonder what is really behind your concern. Let’s talk about how this deal could work for you.”

“Once a dirty trick is exposed then its power is dramatically reduced.”

“The more we deny the existence of politics at work, the longer we maintain our ignorance and the more that we hand the advantage to Machiavellian types who seek to exploit this outlook.”

“People very seldom say directly, cleanly and openly what they mean.”

“One of the keys to successful, positive politics is to work most closely with those whom you trust and are in agreement with, to develop political momentum.”


From Nasty E-mails to Blackmail

There’s a fairly new way to spread malicious rumors: using e-mail to shame a co-worker or spread false information. The dirty trickster uses e-mail to cause controversy or level accusations. The perpetrator copies others, including higher-ups. E-mails begin to fly back and forth, and the facts are lost in the deluge of messages. Politically astute people take great pains to ensure that their e-mails cannot be misconstrued or used against them. If you find yourself at the center of an e-mail whirlwind, walk away from your computer. The best antidote is to confront the perpetrator face-to-face. If that is not possible, pick up the phone and instigate a conversation.

Even e-mail nastiness pales in comparison to outright blackmail. Organizational blackmail takes place when one person threatens to expose another’s secrets to protect his or her own interests. The best way to guard against a blackmailer is to stay clean and sweep the skeletons out of your closet. However, if you become a victim of blackmail, confess. It’s best to take responsibility for your own actions before someone else forces you to do so.

Buried Treasure and Dishonest Honesty

Reading the fine print is especially valuable when someone deliberately hides important information within reams of paper. Verbose or complex reports are great burial grounds for gold nuggets of information. Presenters might try this same dirty trick by quickly passing over crucial data when giving a report. Protect yourself by asking questions and digging for specific answers. If you think someone is trying to confuse you, ask yourself why. It is usually a move for power. And speaking of power, “feedback” is a popular business buzzword, and genuine feedback is a wonderful tool for growth and learning. However, “malicious feedback” is intentionally hurtful or misleading. If you get negative feedback that leaves you unsettled and insecure, take a hard look at the messenger. Is the feedback designed to undermine your efforts? If so, it has more to do with the messenger’s agenda than with your performance.

The Loop – Are You In or Out?

If you are “accidentally” left off a distribution list or your party invite is conveniently “lost” in the mail, you might be a victim of the “no invitation” dirty trick. Perhaps the persecutor feels you are unwelcome competition, and wants to keep you out of the loop, withhold important information or just upset you. Whatever the motive, if questioned, the perpetrator will argue that it was an innocent mistake. Now have your guard up, so you can be more assertive about firmly holding your place in the loop.

The real business of running a company often takes place outside the conference room. After all, sounding out the opinions of various stakeholders is simply good politics.

However, when people try to further their own agendas ahead of the organization’s priorities, the private “caucus” turns into a dirty trick. When workers make end-runs around their teams, or resort to bullying, manipulation and intimidation to push their programs, that’s a parade of dirty tricks. If you find your arm uncomfortably twisted, withhold your support until you get some answers.

No-Choice Choices

Machiavellian managers use dirty tricks to coerce people to take assignments they’d rather not do. One method is to offer a choice between an unpleasant task and something even worse. When caught between this “rock and a hard place,” the victim usually picks the lesser evil and the manager triumphs. To protect yourself, ask for all of the facts and options upfront. If you decide to confront the perpetrator, brace yourself for a difficult

“As a human being you, and only you, are in charge of your own thoughts, feelings and behaviors; therefore you can simply decide that you are not going to be manipulated into feeling guilty, awkward, slow, ineffective…”

“Anger is often responded to by reciprocal anger, thereby fuelling the fi re, and a stand-up fi ght nearly always hands an advantage to Machiavelli, who will know how to exploit this.”

“The best advice…is to choose your battles strategically.”

“Just as we don’t need to fi ght every battle that comes our way, we won’t win every battle we fi ght.”


conversation. You could say something such as, “These choices just don’t ring true to me. I want us to have a more open conversation, so how about we put our cards on the table and talk about what is really happening here.”

Although in some companies, “rules are rules,” managers in most organizations have the flexibility to bend the rules when it is appropriate. However, when a manager pleads, “My hands are tied” with one person, and bends the rules for another, discretionary flexibility becomes a dirty trick. Managers use feigned helplessness to block ideas or reward favorite employees. If you are on the short end of this situation, do some research. Find out what concessions the manager made to other employees. Study existing policies and note where the manager can exert authority. Then question the manager to expose this tactic for what it really is.

Kill the Messenger

Being asked to give a presentation is usually an honor, especially when you are assured that your team is “right behind you.” But if the message you must give is unpleasant or the findings are controversial, be sure you are not being set up as a scapegoat. Architects of this underhanded tactic appoint an unsuspecting spokesperson to do their dirty work. They send the scapegoat into a negotiation or presentation, and if the tide turns rough, they abruptly withdraw their support and fade into the woodwork. If your team asks you to be its spokesperson, but you question its support for you or for the proposal, ask some powerful questions. For example, “Why would you want to support me in taking this forward?” or “What stops you from taking action yourself?”

You’re Out!

Organizations need to restructure teams or departments periodically. However, this becomes a dirty trick when the reorganization is simply a tactic to jettison unwanted personnel. This strategy sends a message to not only the victim, but also to every other employee. Staffers become afraid to speak out or make mistakes, knowing that their jobs are just a restructure away from obsolete. If you are restructured out of a job, you can fight back, but you have only a small chance of regaining your position. You might not want that job back, but don’t be silent. You could have a right to financial reparations if you can prove you were treated unfairly.

What Can You Do?

Most managers want to do good work and oppose using dirty tricks. But if leaders want to create a corporate environment that discourages the proliferation of dirty tricks, they must recognize this issue and talk about it. Executive management should offer programs in political skills at every level. Corporate values must be more than a carefully worded statement on a laminated card.

What can you do as an individual to combat dirty office tricks? Don’t wait for the organization to change or you might wait in vain. Instead, change your attitude and discuss the issue with others. Don’t play the game of manipulation and backroom moves. Live by your values, and wield your personal power with integrity and honesty.

About the Authors

Mike Phipps and Colin Gautrey co-founded a company that helps individuals and

organizations develop necessary political skills. Phipps has consulted with some of the world’s largest corporations. Gautrey is a business professional, trainer and coach.

“By asking questions you demonstrate that you are not going to be intimidated.”

“It is harder for the politics of self-interest to triumph in the face of politically savvy people who are determined to do the right thing for the business.”

“Remember that the one thing that Machiavellian managers are afraid of is for their tactics to be exposed.”


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