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Alpha males and their rituals of dominance

Alpha males and their rituals of dominance

Why office politics are everywhere, yet accomplish so little of value

Two years ago, I went to Colorado to watch the Prairie Chickens and Sage Grouse doing their spring dances. The males strut around, puff out their chests, and try to intimidate other males who come near them. Sometimes they start up a skirmish, running at one another and trying to look as fearsome as possible. Younger, junior males hang around the edges of the dancing area, practicing on one another. In their excitement, they sometimes try to get in on the serious action, only to get their butts kicked by the alpha males.

You can see virtually the same behavior in just about any organization. Lots of ritualized aggressive behavior; the junior people getting pushed to the edges and occasionally put firmly in their place; all the paraphernalia of dominance and the creation of a pecking order. Mostly bluff and posturing, with an occasional serious fight thrown in. Amongst the grouse and Prairie Chickens, access to females is controlled by male posturing for dominance. In organizations, it’s more usually access to budgets, influence, and power.

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Power is a natural part of every hierarchy, animal, bird, or human. And where there is power, and the benefits that flow from exercising power, there will be people trying to find ways to get more of it and deny access to rivals. If you’re a male grouse, you have to dance if you want to breed. No dance, no access to females. Among business executives—real or wannabe—you usually have to play the political game if you want to get ahead. People act the way they do because they’re human animals with the same tendencies to playing dominance games as grouse or Prairie Chickens.

The prizes are big ones: not just money, prestige, and power, but even better health and longer life. Studies have shown that having lower status can shorten your life. A study in the 1970s, which looked at the health and working life of thousands of British civil servants, found that the lower a person’s “grade” the more likely they were to die young, especially of coronary artery disease.

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Why does this process resist all attempts to dislodge it? The young grouse I watched kept trying to get into the serious action and being driven out. Their only “fault” was being young. But they hang in there. In time, they’ll be at the center of things. And then? They’ll kick the butts of the newcomers of their time. Creating and maintaining a pecking order is just about universal amongst social creatures. Since that includes mankind, I doubt we’ll see an end to it any time soon. If you want to get to the top, as things are today, you have to compete. If you stand aside, you may feel morally superior, but you probably won’t become a top executive. That’s a problem for many women and minorities. They don’t want to play the stereotypically white-male-dominated game of office politics. It feels demeaning and distasteful, especially since they start with the handicap of the “wrong” skin color or gender. Traditional office politics and diversity simply don’t mix.

Politics, bullying, and succession to top jobs
People who are bullied often become bullies themselves. Those who scratch and claw their way to the top, using every political dirty trick, are very often the ones who suffered most at junior levels from bosses who kept smacking them down. Monsters in the executive suite create a whole cadre of “apprentice monsters” just waiting to take their place and dish out the same cruelty that they suffered. It’s a vicious cycle that can’t stop until those already in power—not those on the way up—decide to bring it to an end.

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Of course, none of this politicking and strutting your stuff contributes in any way to the success of the business itself. It’s purely personal, despite the ritual bleating that competition sorts out the weak from the strong and the able from the incompetent. It might, if you were dealing purely with physical fitness, as the grouse are, but it has no use in trying to help the most able, the most creative, or the wisest to reach position where their abilities, creativity, and wise judgments can be used. In the typical free-for-all of office politics, advancement goes to the pushiest, most egotistical, and least scrupulous people: hardly the ideal qualities you would choose for future top executives.

Understanding why office politics sucks
In this atmosphere of posturing alpha males, the rules of the game determine outcomes, not what is best for the business, the shareholders, or the community at large:

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  • Patronage is currency. CEOs and other senior executives have enormous power of patronage. It’s pretty much the strongest power they have. The ability to hand out rewards (stock options, better terms and contracts, more influence, public recognition, or status) binds people to the person who gives them. Of course, handing out rewards buys you still more patronage, so don’t expect them to go to those who deserve them most. Many of today’s reward systems are warped and suspect because they are used primarily for political advancement, not to encourage merit or reward achievement.
  • Favors are to be traded. Much of the interaction in organizations is based on people trading favors. One way top people establish themselves is by getting their budgets approved. When yours comes through untouched, you’re perceived as a winner. When your budget is chopped, you become a loser, not only in the eyes of your colleagues, but also to your subordinates. This can destroy much of your credibility. Ambitious people will trade almost anything for power and advancement, including their integrity.
  • Don’t break ranks. What the top team says goes. The principle of collective responsibility binds everyone to supporting decisions publicly, even if they disagreed vehemently in private. A front of total unity must be presented to the outside world. If you embarrass those above you, they’ll make sure that you stay where you are. This works against “whistle blowers” and any kind of public revelation of private wrongdoing. It’s hard to create pressure for change when everyone appears so satisfied with the status quo; and even harder to find evidence of poor practices through a self-imposed wall of silence. It makes a mockery of all the fine words about openness and transparency.
  • Surprises are bad. The last thing those at the top want is to be surprised, whether the unexpected is good or bad. It suggests that they don’t know what’s going on (which happens to be true, but they don’t want it to be so plain to everyone). This contributes more than almost anything else to the sluggishness and inertia of many organizations. Change means surprises. It might reveal that top people are not as able as their carefully-crafted images suggest.
  • Do unto others what others did unto you. What keeps the whole process going, making sure when you get to the top that you pour as much of the brown stuff as possible on those below you—just like all too many of today’s bosses— is the mistaken belief that it has to be this way. Why? Grouse do it, chimps do it, but they also mate in public and I don’t see many powerful people suggesting that is the natural way of things for all right-thinking people.

Office politics may be extremely common—probably universal at the present time—but some form of slavery was also universal for many centuries. Did that make it right? The correct question to ask is whether the time, energy, and effort expended on playing politics in the workplace contributes anything of worth to the organization or society. I can’t see anything, only a great deal of wasted time, bruised people, and suppression of ability. Maybe the time has come to begin to call a halt.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His latest book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization

    , is now available at all good bookstores.

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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