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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 December 10, 2019

    How to Stay Motivated and Reach Your Big Goals in Life

    How to Stay Motivated and Reach Your Big Goals in Life

    It is hardly a secret that the key to successfully accomplishing one goal after another is staying motivated. There are, of course, tasks which successful people may not like at all, yet they find motivation to complete them because they recognize how each particular task serves a greater goal.

    So how to stay motivated most of the time? Here are 5 simple yet effective ways on how to stay motivated and get what you want:

    1. Find Your Good Reasons

    Anything you do, no matter how simple, has a number of good reasons behind it.

    You may not be able to find good reasons to do some tasks at first but, if you take just a few moments to analyze them, you will easily spot something good. We also have many tasks which don’t need any reasoning at all – we’ve been doing them for so long that they feel natural.

    If you’re ever stuck with some tasks you hate and there seems to be no motivation to complete it whatsoever, here’s what you need to do: find your good reasons.

    Even when you set goals, there needs to be reasons behind these goals. They may not be obvious, but stay at it until you see some, as this will bring your motivation back and will help you finish the task.

    Some ideas for what a good reason can be:

    • A material reward – quite often, you will get paid for doing something you normally don’t like doing at all.
    • Personal gain – you will learn something new or will perhaps improve yourself in a certain way.
    • A feeling of accomplishment – at least you’ll be able to walk away feeling great about finding the motivation and courage to complete such a tedious task.
    • A step closer to your bigger goal – even the biggest accomplishments in history have started small and relied on simple and far less pleasant tasks than you might be working on. Every task you complete brings you closer to the ultimate goal, and acknowledging this always feels good.

    2. Make It Fun

    When it comes to motivation, attitude is everything. Different people may have completely opposite feelings towards the same task: some will hate it, others will love it.

    Why do you think this happens? It’s simple: some of us find ways to make any task interesting and fun to do!

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    Take sports for example. Visiting your local gym daily for a half-an-hour workout session sounds rather boring to some. Yet many others love the idea!

    They like exercising not only because they recognize the good reasons behind it, but simply because it’s fun! At certain time of their daily schedule, they find going to gym to be the best thing to do, simply because nothing else will fit their time and lifestyle so perfectly.

    Depending on how you look at it, you can have fun doing just about anything! Just look for ways of having fun, and you’ll find them!

    A simple approach is to start working on any task by asking yourself a few questions:

    • How can I enjoy this task?
    • What can I do to make this task fun for myself and possibly for others?
    • How can I make this work the best part of my day?

    As long as you learn to have the definite expectation of any task being potentially enjoyable, you will start to feel motivated.

    Some of you will probably think of a thing or two which are valid exceptions from this statement, like something you always hate doing no matter how hard you try making it fun. You’re probably right, and that’s why I don’t claim everything to be fun.

    However, most tasks have a great potential of being enjoyable, and so looking for ways to have fun while working is definitely a good habit to acquire.

    3. Change Your Approach And Don’t Give Up

    When something doesn’t feel right, it’s always a good time to take a moment and look for a different approach for the task.

    You may be doing everything correctly and most efficiently, but such approach isn’t necessarily the most motivating one. Quite often, you can find a number of obvious tweaks to your current approach which will both change your experience and open up new possibilities.

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    That’s why saying “one way or another” is so common — if you really want to accomplish your goal, there is always a way; and most likely, there’s more than one way.

    If a certain approach doesn’t work for you, find another one, and keep trying until you find the one which will both keep you motivated and get you the desired results.

    Some people think that trying a different approach means giving up. They take pride in being really stubborn and refusing to try any other options on their way towards the goal.

    My opinion on this is that the power of focus is great, but you should be focusing on your goal, and not limiting your options by focusing on just one way to accomplish it it.

    4. Recognize Your Progress

    Everything you may be working on can be easily split into smaller parts and stages. For most goals, it is quite natural to split the process of accomplishing them into smaller tasks and milestones. There are a few reasons behind doing this, and one of them is tracking your progress.

    We track our progress automatically with most activities. But to stay motivated, you need to recognize your progress, not merely track it.

    Here’s how tracking and recognizing your progress is different:

    Tracking is merely taking a note of having reached a certain stage in your process. Recognizing is taking time to look at a bigger picture and realize where exactly you are, and how much more you have left to do.

    For example, if you’re going to read a book, always start by going through the contents table. Getting familiar with chapter titles and memorizing their total number will make it easier for you to recognize your progress as you read. Confirming how many pages your book has before starting it is also a good idea.

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    You see, reading any book you will be automatically looking at page numbers and chapter titles, but without knowing the total number of pages, this information will have little meaning.

    Somehow, it is human nature to always want things to happen in short term or even at once. Even though we split complex tasks into simpler actions, we don’t quite feel the satisfaction until all is done and the task is fully complete.

    For many scenarios though, the task is so vast that such approach will drain all the motivation out of you long before you have a chance to reach your goal. That’s why it is important to always take small steps and recognize the positive different and progress made. This is how your motivation can sustain in long term.

    5. Reward Yourself

    This is a trick everyone likes: rewarding yourself is always pleasant. This is also one of the easiest and at the same time most powerful ways to stay motivated!

    Feeling down about doing something? Dread the idea of working on some task? Hate the whole idea of working? You’re not alone.

    Right from the beginning, agree on some deliverables which will justify yourself getting rewarded. As soon as you get one of the agreed results, take time to reward yourself in some way.

    For some tasks, just taking a break and relaxing for a few minutes will do.

    For others, you may want to get a fresh cup of coffee and even treat yourself a dessert.

    For even bigger and more demanding tasks, reward yourself by doing something even more enjoyable, like going to a cinema or taking a trip to some place nice, or even buying yourself something.

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    Your progress may not seem to others like anything worth celebrating but, take time and do it anyway! It is your task and your reward, so any ways to stay motivated are good.

    The more you reward yourself for the honestly made progress, the more motivated you will feel about reaching new milestones, thus finally accomplishing your goal.

    Mix and Match

    Now that you have these five ways of staying motivated, it is a good moment to give you the key to them all: mix and match!

    Pick one of the techniques and apply it to your situation. If it doesn’t work, or if you simply want to get more motivated, try another technique right way. Mix different approaches and match them to your task for the best results.

    Just think about it: Finding good reasons to work on your task is bound to helping you feel better; and identifying ways to make it fun will help you enjoy the task even more.

    Or, if you plan a few points for easier tracking of your progress and on top of that, agree on rewarding yourself as you go; this will make you feel most motivated about anything you have to work through.

    More to Boost Your Motivation

    Featured photo credit: Lucas Lenzi via unsplash.com

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