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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 August 12, 2019

    How To Start a Conversation with Anyone

    How To Start a Conversation with Anyone

    The hardest part of socializing, for many people, is how to start a conversation. However, it is a big mistake to go about life not making the first move and waiting for someone else to do it [in conversation or anything].

    This isn’t to say you must always be the first in everything or initiate a conversation with everyone you see. What should be said, though, is once you get good at starting conversations, a lot of other things will progress in the way you want; such as networking and your love life.

    Benefits of Initiating a Conversation

    First thing is you should acknowledge why it is a good thing to be able to initiate conversations with strangers or people who you don’t know well:

    • You’re not a loner with nothing to do.
    • You look more approachable if you are comfortable approaching others.
    • Meeting new people means developing a network of friends or peers which leads to more knowledge and experiences.

    You can only learn so much alone, and I’m sure you’re aware of the benefits of learning from others. Being able to distinguish the ‘good from bad’ amongst a group of people will help in building a suitable network, or making a fun night.

    All people are good in their own way. Being able to have a good time with anybody is a worthy trait and something to discuss another time. However, if you have a specific purpose while in social situations, you may want to stick with people who are suitable.

    This means distinguishing between people who might suit you and your ‘purpose’ from those who probably won’t. This can require some people-judging, which I am generally very opposed to. However, this does make approaching people all the more easier.

    It helps to motivate the conversation if you really want to know this person. Also, you’ll find your circle of friends and peers grows to something you really like and enjoy.

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    The Rules

    I don’t have many rules in this life, for conversation or anything; but when it comes to approaching strangers, there are a few I’d like used.

    1. Be polite. Within context, don’t be a creepy, arrogant loudmouth or anything. Acknowledge that you are in the company of strangers and don’t make anyone feel uncomfortable. First impressions mean something.
    2. Keep it light. Don’t launch into a heartfelt rant or a story of tragedy. We’re out to have fun.
    3. Don’t be a prude. This just means relax. This isn’t a science and conversation isn’t a fine art. Talk to people like you’re already friends.
    4. Be honest. Be yourself. People can tell.

    Who To Talk To?

    I’m of the ilk that likes to talk to everyone and anyone. Everyone has a story and good personalities. Some are harder to get to than others, but if you’re on a people-finding excursion, like I usually am, then everyone is pretty much fair game.

    That said, if you’re out at a function and you want to build a network of people in your niche, you will want to distinguish those people from the others. Find the ‘leaders’ in a group of people or ask around for what you’re looking for.

    In a more general environment, like at a bar, you will want to do the same sort of thing. Acknowledge what you actually want and try to distinguish suitable people. Once you find someone, or a group of people, that you want to meet and talk to, hop to it.

    Think of a few things you might have in common. What did you notice about their dress sense?

    Building Confidence

    The most important part of initiating conversation is, arguably, having confidence. It should be obvious that without any amount of self-esteem you will struggle. Having confidence in yourself and who you are makes this job very easy.

    If you find yourself doubting your worth, or how interesting you are, make a few mental notes of why you are interesting and worth talking to. There is no question you are. You just have to realize that.

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    What do I do? What is interesting about it? What are my strong points and what are my weak ones? Confident people succeed because they play on their strengths.

    Across the Room Rapport

    This is rapport building without talking. It’s as simple as reciprocated eye contact and smiles etc. Acknowledging someone else’s presence before approaching them goes a long way to making introductions easier. You are instantly no longer just a random person.

    In my other article How Not To Suck At Socializing, there are things you can do to make yourself appear approachable. This doesn’t necessarily mean people are going to flock to you. You’ll still probably need to initiate conversations.

    People notice other people who are having a blast. If you’re that person, someone will acknowledge it and will make the ‘across the room rapport’ building a breeze. If you’re that person that is getting along great with their present company, others will want to talk to you. This will make your approach more comfortable for both parties.

    The Approach

    When it comes to being social, the less analytical and formulaic you are the better. Try not to map out your every move and plan too much. Although we are talking about how to initiate conversation, these are really only tips. When it comes to the approach, though, there are some things you should keep in mind.

    Different situations call for different approaches. Formal situations call for something more formal and relaxed ones should be relaxed.

    At a work function, for instance, be a little formal and introduce yourself. People will want to know who you are and what you do right away. This isn’t to say you should only talk about work, but an introduction and handshake is appropriate.

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    If you’re at a bar, then things are very different and you should be much more open to unstructured introductions. Personally, I don’t like the idea of walking directly to someone to talk to them. It’s too direct. I like the sense of randomness that comes with meeting new people.

    However, if there is rapport already established, go for it. If not, take a wander, buy a drink and be aware of where people are. If there is someone you would like to talk to, make yourself available and not sit all night etc.

    When someone is alone and looks bored, do them a favor and approach them. No matter how bad the conversation might get, they should at least appreciate the company and friendliness.

    Briefly, Approaching Groups

    When integrating with an established group conversation, there is really one thing to know. That is to establish the ‘leader’ and introduce yourself to them. I mentioned that before, but here is how and why.

    The why is the leader of a group conversation is probably the more social and outgoing. They will more readily accept your introduction and then introduce you to the rest of the group. This hierarchy in a group conversation is much more prevalent in formal situations where one person is leading the conversation.

    A group of friends out for the night is much more difficult to crack. This may even be another topic for discussion, but one thing I know that works is initiating conversation with a ‘stray’. It sounds predatorial, but it works.

    More often than not, this occurs without intention. But if you do really want to get into a group of friends, your best bet is approaching one of them while they are away from the group and being invited into the group.

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    It is possible, like everything, to approach a group outright and join them. However, this is almost an art and requires another specific post.

    Topics Of Conversation

    Other than confidence, the next thing people who have trouble initiating conversations lack is conversation! So here are a few tips to get the ball rolling:

    • Small talk sucks. It’s boring and a lot of people already begin to zone out when questions like, “What do you do?” or “What’s with this weather?” come up. Just skip it.
    • Everything is fair game. If you are in the company of someone and a thought strikes you, share it. “This drink is garbage! What are you drinking?” “Where did you get that outfit?”
    • Opinions matter. This is any easy way to hit the ground running in conversation. Everyone has one, and when you share yours, another will reveal itself. The great thing about this line of thought is that you are instantly learning about the other person and what they like, dislike etc.
    • Environment. The place you’re in is full of things to comment on. The DJ, band, fashions; start talking about what you see.
    • Current events. Unless it’s something accessible or light-hearted, forget it. Don’t launch into your opinion on the war or politics. If your town has recently hosted a festival, ask what they think about it.

    Exiting Conversation

    Although I’d like to write a full post on exiting strategies for conversations you don’t want to be in, here are some tips:

    • The first thing is don’t stay in a conversation you’re not interested in. It’ll show and will be no fun for anyone.
    • Be polite and excuse yourself. You’re probably out with friends, go back to them.  Or buy a drink. Most people will probably want to finish the conversation as much as you.

    Likewise, you could start another conversation.

    If you’d like to learn more tips about starting a conversation, this guide maybe useful for you: How to Talk to Strangers Without Feeling Awkward

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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