Rick Brandon’s Interview on Office Politics

Dragons At Work Interview with Rick Brandon
For thirty-five years Rick Brandon has been doing leadership training, specifically focused on the interpersonal dimension of influence and performance: listening, speaking, agreements, conflict management –– your classic people skills that drive a successful business.

When I asked Rick about how he got interested in Office Politics here’s what he said:

RB: About twelve years ago, I started having what I like to call a “midlife enlightenment” period. I realized that not everything in corporate success and leadership development is interpersonally focused. And it called into question what I was pouring my life into. It’s like that old adage: If you sell hammers and that’s what your expertise is, the whole world starts looking like a nail.

I began to see a hidden dimension of success in the areas of company politics and power dynamics. We were ignoring it along with many other professionals in the leadership development industry. There’s a more strategic dimension of influence that’s about power, politics, promoting yourself and your ideas, and how you’re perceived by others.

At the same time, ironically, a Fortune 50 client of mine (a huge bank) said, “We’ve got a bunch of midlevel managers who are making a career turn. They’re moving from the minors to the majors, and they don’t have political savvy. They actually used those terms “political” and “organizational savvy.” They lacked sophistication. They didn’t understand the unwritten rules of making this career turn. They asked, “What can you do that isn’t in the area of interpersonal skills that will help them make that leap?” Stephen, that was a real turning point because it was an aha-moment! Not everything is interpersonal skills.

During that time I’d also been talking with an old colleague of mine, Dr. Marty Seldman, who is an excellent executive coach. His expertise is in “derailment coaching”. You’re in trouble. You’re being thrown out of the company or you’ve hit a career plateau and Marty is your last-ditch effort.

My expertise has been more in leadership development through group-based courses. We started comparing notes. What were the success factors and the derailment factors of people who were in trouble in their careers? And what we realized is that of the 1,200 or so people he had coached over twenty-five years, it used to be that the people in career difficulty were the overly-political snakes: the people who lacked people skills and were abrasive. They climbed the ladder, but by climbing over everyone else. They were now so publicly visible that they couldn’t get away with that behavior anymore. A coach was brought in to turn them around.

But the fascinating thing we realized is that in the last five to twelve years, since we started doing our work on power dynamics and politics, just as many people were in career trouble by being under-political. They had people skills. They had ethics. They had integrity. They were company loyal. I’m talking about good, ethical, competent (if not technically brilliant people) who were up a creek without a paddle, because they underestimated the importance of organizational politics and its role in their success.

So I said to Marty, “Let’s funnel this information into a preventative leadership development course. Let’s not wait until it’s too late for the overly political or the under-political.” I took it back to the Fortune 50 bank. We installed it for these midlevel managers and it became the most popular leadership development program at that bank. Then we started doing it for lower level leaders because the middle managers were saying, “I should have had this twenty-five years ago.”

That’s the birth of our tiger by the tail. Then our clients started saying, “You’ve got to put this in a book.” So we wrote Survival of the Savvy and the rest is history.

SJ: That’s great. You’ve made a real contribution. Let’s turn now to Dragons at Work (Chapter 13) and look at our hero, Dan, who is naïve about company politics and also scorns it.

RB: He’s under-political…

SJ: Yes, and early on in the story, his coach, Michele, asks him about it and he says, “I really hate politics. I just do my work and let it speak for itself.” Then she says: “That would be OK if everyone played by those rules. Experience says otherwise…Ignoring politics is a classic derailer.”

RB: When he says that to her there’s juice, energy, and emotion to it, and that often is the difference between someone who’s merely less political and someone who’s dangerously under-political and in danger of being marginalized, vulnerable to missing influence; or worse, being victimized or sabotaged.

If I read between the lines, Dan is saying, “Darn it. I’m not going to play the game” with a stubborn stomping of the foot. He’s indignant, even resentful. And, as Michele observes, he’s sitting on the bench refusing to play the game that’s going on all around him. If we’re steadfastly refusing to play a game that we’re in fact in, whether we like it or not, we’re vulnerable.

SJ: So, we have a scene between Bob, the VP of Customer Service and George, the company CEO on the golf course where Bob is just the opposite of Dan – he’s overly political. Let’s go into that scene. Can you elaborate on how Bob plays George?

RB: So here’s Dan who doesn’t want to play the game, and here’s Bob, who’s playing two games – the game of golf with George, and also the political game, very skillfully, I might add.

As the story proceeds, we see more of it, but there are hints right here on the golf course that Bob and George’s relationship is a dangerous one for George. Bob is over- political. He’s not just more political. He’s overly political and as we see he’s playing George like a fiddle.

What makes Bob an interesting, snake-like fellow, is that unlike some overly political players, he’s not blatant. He’s not going after Dan in an obviously sabotaging way. He hides it under the guise of company concerns. He plants seeds, and he does it like Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. He sort of gets the fox to dance with him.

As they play golf, Bob gradually lets his thoughts leak out and he leads George to the conclusion that Bob wants him to have. He’s subtle and nuanced, and that is more insidious than a crude attack. So he sounds innocent, but he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. This is often what overly political people are skilled at – they use their verbal mastery, their skills at impression management, and their skills at playing on someone’s vulnerabilities. Bob doesn’t come after Dan in a super-critical way. He damns him with faint praise. He says, “He might pull it off at the eleventh hour.” So he comes off as trying to give Dan the benefit of the doubt, but what’s really happening is Dan’s getting all the doubt and Bob’s getting all the benefit! And George falls for it.

SJ: And George is the kind of guy who likes to be decisive. As soon as he’s convinced that something needs to be done, he starts being proactive. George feels like it’s his idea for Bob to contact the consultants to come in over Dan.

RB: That’s true, and so Bob successfully planted that seed. He knows how to play George’s ego and all the manipulation was meant to plant that seed. And of course, he’s the puppet master, pulling George’s strings, which is ironic because George is supposedly the top dog.

He even knows how to play on George’s hubris, and take advantage of George’s “CEO disease.” Have you heard of CEO disease, Stephen?

SJ: No. Can you tell us more? It’s a bit surprising that a CEO would be that vulnerable to manipulation.

RB: Yes, it’s shocking and ironic that a CEO can be so vulnerable to deception. They don’t see the skill and guile of the players who tell them exactly what they want to hear. This is “CEO disease.” We would tell George, “George, you’re probably not as smart, good-looking or funny as you think you are. You’ve surrounded yourself with people who are telling you what you want to hear, and that one guy who disagrees with you, he’s really your best friend.”

Back to Bob, who’s no one’s best friend… Bob’s ticked off at Dan and wants to marginalize him. Dan didn’t cater to the customer service features that Bob wanted. Dan wouldn’t kiss up to Bob. There’s some foreshadowing here of what’s to come, but we’ll let the readers find out as the story unfolds.

SJ: It’s great to see this chapter through your expert eyes. It gives readers a deeper perspective on political intrigue.

RB: You use the word “expert” and I want to be a bit self-deprecating here and say that a lot of people see these political things going on. We tell people, “Use your sniffer.” Don’t automatically trust it, but if you get a whiff of something follow your instincts and check it out.

Most people can recognize these dynamics. The expertise and value add that Marty and I bring is that we’ve made looking at company politics more systematic and scientific. We’ve helped people to understand it and to see its specific behavioral manifestations. What are the behaviors of more political and less political leaders and managers? And most importantly, what are the behaviors of an overly political shark and an under-political, derailed ostrich with his head in the sand?

That’s the main contribution of our work in Survival of the Savvy and our workshops on organizational savvy. A lot of people say, “Okay, I get that politics are going on and that guy is more political; but it’s so fuzzy and nuanced. It’s like fog. How do I get my mind around something as nebulous as organizational politics?”

We look at thirteen skill sets of organizational savvy, many of which Bob has but overuses (which makes him overly political) and Dan, of course, doesn’t possess. He doesn’t schmooze and he doesn’t have a network, as Michele warns him in the 7 Powers Profile debrief. He doesn’t know how to align himself with George in ways that Bob does through his verbal mastery, impression management, and “weapons of mass distraction.” He doesn’t chart the winners and losers. Overly political people are really good at sensing whose political stock is up or down, and which projects’ political stock is up or down. They’ll position themselves to blame the losers and take credit for the winners. We see it happening here.

SJ: Rick, thank you so much for your insight into the political dynamics of this chapter. I have one last question: If you were coaching George, the top dog, what kind of things would you do to inoculate him against CEO disease?

RB: We address this in Survival of the Savvy. We tell leaders to “expect deception.” As a CEO, you don’t want to think you’re vulnerable because you have the power. It’s like the bank robber, Willie Sutton. They asked him “Why do you rob banks?” He said, “Well, that’s where the money is.” Well, CEO George, you’re where the money is. You’re where the power is. Bob and others want it. So we would coach him to expect deception. It doesn’t mean you’re paranoid or pessimistic. It just means you understand human nature, the best and the worst of human nature. That’s what a person with organizational savvy does.

We coach CEOs on ways to analyze what people are saying, and to look for distorted information. So George would be asking himself, “What might Bob have to gain by this plan? Does he have ulterior motives?” Also we would coach him to look for people who are in agreement with him on an issue. And then we would tell him, “Now, change your point of view, George, and see if Bob changes his to accommodate and agree with you.”

A lot of overly political people will kiss up and they will kick down. They’ll agree and be deferential to people with power or people they think are wired into power, and they’ll be dismissive of those who are not. We would help George to change his paradigm and not be overly trusting, not take things at face value. We’d advise him to look for hidden agendas, ulterior motives, and people being overly accommodating. And we’d advise him especially to not automatically trust someone because he’s too busy to check the details and facts he’s being given. Misplaced trust can do a lot of damage.

If someone is fixing blame on someone else, they often do it in an inferential way. They’ll say, “He’s an empire builder. He left a lot of money on the table. This one is really going to hurt you, George. It will make you look bad.” We’ll probe, prompting George to look further. Don’t just accept things at face value. Sometimes the political manipulator will backpedal and back off. Sometimes they’re not manipulators. Sometimes, they’re just using sloppy language, and then we can help them to be more precise. We’ll suggest they ask, “What specifically do you mean by this blame that you’re putting on Dan?” Sometimes this kind of question will uncover a manipulator like Bob.

SJ: Thanks, Rick. I can see why you’re in demand. There are so many under-political people like Dan who miss opportunities, or worse, are defenseless against the Bobs of the world. And there are plenty of over-political Bobs who need to dial it back. And of course, plenty of CEOs who need to raise their awareness to the complexities that come with their role. I’ll let people know how they can find out more about your work.

RB: It’s been a pleasure, Stephen. I loved Dragons at Work, and I know people have an exciting read ahead of them.

For Rick’s great website Office-Politics – The Game Everyone Plays click here.

For his training company, Brandon Partners click here.

Is your style balanced? Or do you tend to be over or under-political? Please go to the comments and give a brief story of how that’s impacted your work life.