Wednesday, September 29, 2010


I just posted the rest of the second draft of Incentivize to it's blog site. As before, it is available to be read and critiqued. To gain access, simply send me an email at and request permission.

All I ask in return is that you keep track of mistakes, sections that don't make sense, or character behavior that seems wrong, and let me know verbally or in writing once you've completed your reading.

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Friend Speaks Out

My blog today is a guest post. This note came to me as an email from a close friend, and captures some of the feelings of anger and frustration I've experienced as well. The names have been removed to protect the innocent, but the guilty should read this and burn with remorse.

Yesterday as I walked Chicago's downtown, dodging the masses as I headed toward the attorney's high rise mansion, I began to get angry. Surrounding me, hoards of people were scurrying to make their 8:00 AM start times, police officers were directing honking traffic, and city workers were digging up century old concrete to fix a broken water line. The morning was spewing forth life in the form of work, and money, and yet here I stood without income and health insurance almost a year after being the victim of a drive-by restructuring. I began to question how in the world someone with my credentials, and my extreme willingness to work, can be the one "left behind".

When I walked into the law firm's board room for a quick rehearsal of this morning's deposition, I must have looked preoccupied. One of the company's attorneys, upon greeting me, asked if all was well. Realizing I must be carrying all this hurt, anger and tension on my face, I calmly asked them how important my testimony would be to the success of the case. With their response of "critical", I got even angrier.

I asked them how it happens that their lawsuit is dependent on a man who can't find a job, doesn't have insurance, has no money, and who's testimony will enable the company that fired him to save millions. That took the legal team by surprise.

It took the team by even further surprise when I noted how easy it would be to turn the tables on those that had put me in this situation. How tempting it was. How good it would feel.

The room became very quiet, and I knew then my point was something they too had secretly been worried about.

I somehow managed a smile and said "let's start going over the agenda. You're fortunate that an honest man will be in front of the camera today".

The corporate sucks you dry.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


I've talked a lot about the political environment in corporations. Now I'd like to direct my attention to the three approaches people take in addressing themselves to it. I call the three types: Avoiders, Neutrals, and Power Players. Another way to think of them are -- those that ignore the political environment; those that recognize it, but fined some of the commonly practiced tactics morally or otherwise repugnant and won't engage in them; and those who will do just about anything that works.

Just like any classification scheme, it's an abstraction, and every grade in between these three probably exists.

As my subject for tonight is Avoiders, let's talk about them...

Avoiders either aren't aware of the political environment, or they're in denial about what their senses reveal to them, or they hate politics so much that they aren't willing to participate regardless. I'll talk about each in turn.

Aren't aware of the political environment -- these would typically either be people that operate with so little human interaction that they don't get enough data about what is going on in the organization to see the political landscape, or perhaps those people that have very low emotional intelligence (there are great sources out there to explain this concept, if you are unfamiliar). They are likely to make huge and very obvious mistakes that will leave other corporate employees scratching their heads at times.

In denial -- some people, despite their emotional intelligence, pretend that there is no politicking going on in the organization. I'm not sure why this happens, but I've seen it a few times in the past. It almost seems their image of other people in the organization is so out of alignment with the political behavior going on that they can't square the two up. Something has to give, and it ends up being the political reality.

Hate politics -- this is more of a moralistic position. Most of the situations where I've seen this, the argument is to eschew politics essentially because they are "unfair" or "undemocratic". I've seen this more with young people, but it does seem to show up some across the entire employee spectrum. Let me give an example -- "Son, nobody is going to take you serious in the corporate world with that tongue piercing and facial tattoo," said the father. "That's just stupid, unfair and wrong!" says the son. The point is, the avoider's dislike of the political reality doesn't change a thing. It still is what it is, with their participation or not.

A variant of this last group is the rather sizable group that believes that only performance should matter in progression and reward within corporations, and politics and the skillful playing of politics shouldn't be a factor. Just like the above example -- their faith in performance as the only basis for judgement about a person is misplaced, and doesn't change a thing, no matter how "unfair" it may seem.

The advice I've offered to Avoiders in the past is: work for a small company, start your own business, or be satisfied with not climbing above the first couple or rungs of the corporate ladder. Is if fair? No. Is it reality? In most cases, yes.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Incentivize -- second draft

I just updated the first thirteen chapters of Incentivize to the second draft revision -- it should be much more readable, although not perfect.

Will try to get the next thirteen chapters posted by Monday of next week, and the balance by Friday.

As always, if you would like to read it, just send me an email at asking for permission. The only thing I ask is that you offer some critique after you're done!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Are we half way yet?

That was always my nag-question when I was riding in the car as a kid. I'm sure my parents got tired of hearing it, but I thought it was infinitely better than the typical Are we there yet?

Neither of which have a real bearing on this post, which is intended to be a sabbatical midpoint check-up. So how is it going? Well, some good, some bad.

On the good side: my stress level is way down, I'm spending lots of time with the kids (school certainly changes that, though), I've really grown to love writing even more than I thought I would, I'm not bored -- not in any way.

On the bad side: I've been abandoned by most of my former friends, the publishing business is hard to break into and not terribly lucrative, I'm getting little opportunity to test out consulting work (I probably need to try harder!), I'm driving Paula a little crazy just by being underfoot.

When I first started to test the writing waters, it was at least partially because I had complete control of it and didn't need to step out of my comfort zone to do it. While that might be true for the actual act of writing, it isn't necessarily true for getting the work published and distributed. There must be a million manuscripts out there trying to fill ten thousand slots -- its just hard to make it happen. Of course, there is this other, interesting world of self-publishing or even exclusive epublishing -- which is breaking the old rules of how to win in this space. It's an exciting time to be an author, although the strategies to employ aren't exactly clear.

But is this where I want to stay? I'm still not sure. I want to keep my options open and still try some new things in the remaining six months of the sabbatical. Then, who knows? This space full of possibilities but lacking commitment does have some of its own appeal...

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Biggest Power Player...

As a follow up to yesterday's blog, I wanted to try something new. I want you to think of the biggest power player in your current organization. Make a list of the political plays he/she uses, and what one's are used particularly well.

For myself, since I don't have an organization, I will use one of my more recent employers.

My Power Player is a man.
He is very good at the following tactics:
  • Scapegoating.
  • Proving to everyone he's the smartest guy in the room.
  • Watching his own back.
  • Managing his boss.
  • Guarding and actively managing his own reputation, especially with his boss.
  • Associating himself with successes.
I wonder if anyone can guess who my man is!

I wonder if anyone is brave enough to guess with a posted comment.

Try this game out yourself, and see if you can distill the tactics of a power player.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Do Power Players beget more Power Players

Here is another observation about politics in Corporations -- the more people playing politics in the organization, the more politicized it becomes. That is particularly true if the people playing are at a high level in the company.

Why would that be the case?

High level political players raise the ante for everyone in the organization. And Power Players (a term I'll better define in a later post), those people who manipulate the perceptions of others in the organization using politics, raise the ante a lot.

They do this by taking aim at other people either overtly or covertly, and causing them problems -- like damaging their credibility, maneuvering them onto bad projects, or getting them fired. The higher the power player is up the ladder, and the more skilled, the more likely it is that person will be able to successfully accomplish these manipulations. That's how they raise the stakes.

So what are the possible responses to the power player? People can either avoid them, or take them on. When employees develop their political skills in order to take on a power player, it raises the political intensity for everyone.

Kind of a "one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel" situation.

Monday, September 13, 2010

After Fermenting for one Month...

Just finished the read-through of Incentivize last night.

A read-through is a clean straight reading (without fixing anything, just making a few notes) of a manuscript -- at least that's my definition, and I doubt any one will disagree! I completed this one in three days.

I finished the first draft of the novel about a month ago, and let it sit for a month while I sorted through the design and proposal for Deliverables.

After the read-through, I've got to say -- its pretty good! I'm more and more excited about this particular project. Once I get the first draft corrections in there (yeah, there still are quite a few -- at least a month to get it done.), I think it will be better than Leverage, which I'm also pretty pleased with.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Style of the Top Dog Does Matter

As I discussed in a previous post, politics in the Corporation (indeed, politics anywhere), revolve around perceptions rather than reality. If you are politically active, then you are engaged in managing those perceptions -- either perceptions of you (which many people think of as -- okay), or of someone else (often seen as slimy, unless done in a positive way).

But why do we need to be worried about perceptions? Why can't we just rely on our supervisors to know the reality of of our behaviors and performance? Why isn't life in the corporation a meritocracy?

The answer to these questions are determined by the style top executive, his senior team, and the organization's past way of doing things.

First, let me reiterate a couple of concepts I discussed previously -- Large organizations are too big for the top executive to intimately know all employees and their performance, and politics acts like a gas to fill the space between the formal system and informal one.

In this context, the top executive's style can have a very significant impact on the political environment. Behaviors that fertilize the organization's politics include:
  • being detached from day to day operations and individual performance.
  • taking the word of other senior executives about employees who don't work for them.
  • making snap judgments about people the top executive really doesn't know well, on very scant information.
  • being unclear or vague in opinions or direction.
  • lying or knowingly allowing employees to operate with incorrect assumptions.
  • substantial consequences for mistakes (sometimes called "holding people accountable").
  • assuming every problem has a cause with a person's name attached to it.
  • scapegoating.
I'm sure there are other behaviors that contribute to a corrosive political environment, that I simply haven't thought of and listed here. And I'm not saying that all of these behaviors are bad (in fact, research shows that some of them correlate well to superior organizational performance), I'm just saying they increase politicking in the company.

On the other hand, there are other top executive behaviors that will reduce the level of politics in the organization.
  • adhering to the formal system, even if painful in the short term.
  • being hands-on and aware of the details of what happens in the organization, particularly in reference to employee performance.
  • respecting direct supervisor's evaluations of a subordinates.
  • being clear and consistent in direction.
  • being slow to judge employees further down the ladder.
  • taking personal responsibility for mistakes and failures.
  • believing that people usually try to perform well, and some issues can not be overcome by a simple swap out of people.
  • knowing who on the senior team is using politics to advance their image and not counting on their council, or even getting them off the team.
Again, I'm sure I'm missing a number of additional items that could go on this list, but you get the idea -- the top executive (along with the company's history) sets the tone for politics in the corporate environment.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Another Chunk of Work

I'm pleased to report that I finished the novel design and proposal development for Deliverables - a novel earlier in the day today. You can email me for permission to view the proposal at

In super-short summary, Deliverables is the story of a well-meaning corporate manager who is convinced to spy on his employer by a government agency, only later to learn he has been duped and faces severe consequences for his mistake.

The concept is loosely based on the story of Guy Enright, an employee of KPMG, who was convinced to provide sensitive documents to a private security firm that had led Enright to believe they worked for MI-6.

I look forward to working up the first draft, but next on the agenda is the second draft of Incentivize.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

How does Company History impact Politics?

Old habits die hard. At least in corporations they do.

If you've ever worked in a large corporation, you've probably experienced the inertia that exists there. Yes, the chief executive (and to a lesser degree, other high level executives) does influence the company -- he/she sets strategy, maybe refines the mission and values, and over enough time, may even change the direction of that inertia.

Sometimes that inertia is called Culture. I personally hate the Culture name, because it is overused and fuzzy in meaning.

Suppose the last Chief Executive (who was in place for 25 years, for argument sake), was a detached high flying strategist who allowed freewheeling politics to rule the organization. Now suppose the Chief Executive retires and is replaced by a hands-on CEO who hates politics. How long does it take to change the underlying environment?

The answer is -- a long time. And it will be a very painful period. Why? Because old habits die hard! The existing organization is filled with people who grew up in and flourished in a highly politicized environment. In their world, certain tactics and political maneuvering became a part of their management style and part of their survival tools. That is hard for people to let go of, particularly since it continues to work, despite what the new CEO is demanding.

Unfortunately, for the current team, the quickest way to change the highly politicized environment would be to change out the people. Since it isn't practical to fire everybody, what actually happens is a few people are sacrificed in the transition, and change plods along very slowly.

So is company history important to understanding the politics of the organization? Absolutely!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Check out the White Paper

I finished a first draft of the white paper titled Power and Politics in the Corporation -- navigating the minefield. It is posted on my website under the tab for Articles. You can link there directly from here at

How do Formal and Informal (Political) Power Structures Relate?

Just reading that title is a mouthful! And it sounds so intellectual too... But I don't mean it to be. Here's the basic thesis --

There are written formal rules, policies and structure in corporations that are pretty straight forward and pretty clear to everybody involved, and then there is a second informal set of expectations for behavior that take over where the formal stuff leaves off.

For example -- you don't fake your expense reports. Everybody know this. In most companies its written down, along with consequences for violating the policy. The policy usually says who is responsible for reviewing and approving the expenses also. In other words it delegates or confers power to those individuals for the purpose of reviewing expenses. If it wasn't written down, there would still be a prohibition against faking your expense report, it would just be part of the informal power structure.

I consider this entire collection of visible behavior regulating rules & policies as the formal power structure of the corporation. They tend to focus on things like -- spending authorization and approval, personal behaviors (like vacations, tardiness, allowable travel behaviors), organizational structure (who reports to whom), and performance measurement (that damned appraisal process).

Extensive though this collection might be, it falls far short of the informal behavior regulating rules, which I consider the political structure of the corporation. Some people also refer to this or some subset of this structure as the culture of the organization (although culture is one of those overused business-speak terms that, like an overused knife, has lost its edge).

My thesis is that the informal (political) structure, like a gas, fills the gap between the formal power structure and way things actually get done. And it's usually a big gap.

Unlike the formal power structure, the political structure is not necessarily obvious. For example, if there's no formal dress code, you learn that jeans are only acceptable on Friday by observation or asking. Another example -- Naming names during a high pressure meeting (i.e., who screwed up), might be just the right thing to do at Company A, but a political error at Company B. It can get very subtle and confusing, and often needs to be interpreted on the fly.

Politics, is about figuring out what lies within the informal rules or is outside, and managing the perception of your behavior in the context of those rules. Perception is more important than reality because your compliance with the political norms are only important in the eyes of other people. Their perception (correct or incorrect) is their reality, and they will treat you as such.

Playing politics, is about the manipulation of perceptions -- either perceptions about yourself or someone else. This is the part of the political world that most people find objectionable.

All other things being equal, organizations with less formal power structure, tend to have more politics, and often more playing of politics going on. When you hear someone say, we don't want too many rules, as it hinders creativity, what they are really saying is -- we let the political structure take care of that stuff, despite its messiness.

Other viewpoints or opinions?

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Politics and Position on the Ladder

Here is a second concept surrounding politics -- The higher up the corporate ladder you climb, the more important understanding and playing politics is to your success and survival.

Why, you might ask, would that be true? I think there are three primary reasons --
  1. Defining whether an employee is performing gets harder the further up the ladder you go. For an individual contributor, you look at what was their personal output, and how did it stack up against expectations. For a senior manager though, factors like: changes in the market, performance of subordinates, validity of assumptions, and trade-offs between choices, all tend to muddy the waters (I could probably make a much longer list). When you can't easily gage the persons output, there is a tendency to rely on watching what they do -- except you can't take the time to watch it all, so perceptions that are established by what others say. Of course, the little one actually sees become extremely important. That is the stuff of politics. Politics is all about developing and protecting perceptions of how you are doing, and potentially manipulating perceptions about others.
  2. There are more politicians at higher levels in the company, and they tend to have more skill. I'm not sure why that is -- a Darwinian survival characteristic, perhaps? Since a part of politics surrounds manipulation of perceptions about others, you need political skills at higher levels, if for no other reason to protect yourself. An individual contributor who has few enemies can probably get by at most companies by ignoring politics. Senior managers won't survive being a-political, no matter how nice they are. There are just too many sharks in the water up there.
  3. At higher levels you are a bigger target for the political machinations of others. This tends to happen for a couple of reasons -- senior managers are a more useful target of manipulation because they hold formal organizational power, and they have less time available to intimately know others in the organization thus making them more vulnerable to manipulation. For some senior managers, they end up surrounded by yes-men (or yes-women) who give the manager the sense that their perceptions are always correct, while at the same time subtly manipulating those perceptions. This seems to happen to the chief executive fairly frequently.
So kind readers -- what do you think? Do politics get thicker and more ruthless as you climb the corporate ladder? Or do the stakes just get higher? Or, do you totally disagree and think political games are played uniformly across the company?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Power and Politics in the Corporation

I've been working on a "white paper" of sorts on the above subject, and I think I'll give some of the ideas their first exposure here on my blog -- that despite the fact that my readers don't tend to post many comments, and I could use comments and critiques of the concepts. If you're too shy to write a comment, please send an email. I'm hoping to use this forum to further explore some of the concepts.

So here's the first one -- I believe that politics are present in virtually all large organizations. And by large, I specifically mean enough people in the organization that the chief executive can't intimately know the specifics and the performance of all employees first hand. I think the line is somewhere between 50 and 200 employees, based on capabilities of the Chief Executive.

The white paper is now available by clicking this link: Power and Politics in the Corporation