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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 November 19, 2020

    The Gentle Art of Saying No for a Less Stressful Life

    The Gentle Art of Saying No for a Less Stressful Life

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments—you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time. That’s why the art of saying no can be a game changer for productivity.

    Requests for your time are coming in all the time—from family members, friends, children, coworkers, etc. To stay productive, minimize stress, and avoid wasting time, you have to learn the gentle art of saying no—an art that many people have problems with.

    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger, or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

    However, it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here’s how to stop people pleasing and master the gentle art of saying no.

    1. Value Your Time

    Know your commitments and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it.

    Be honest when you tell them that: “I just can’t right now. My plate is overloaded as it is.” They’ll sympathize as they likely have a lot going on as well, and they’ll respect your openness, honesty, and attention to self-care.

    2. Know Your Priorities

    Even if you do have some extra time (which, for many of us, is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time?

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    For example, if my wife asks me to pick up the kids from school a couple of extra days a week, I’ll likely try to make time for it as my family is my highest priority. However, if a coworker asks for help on some extra projects, I know that will mean less time with my wife and kids, so I will be more likely to say no. 

    However, for others, work is their priority, and helping on extra projects could mean the chance for a promotion or raise. It’s all about knowing your long-term goals and what you’ll need to say yes and no to in order to get there. 

    You can learn more about how to set your priorities here.

    3. Practice Saying No

    Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word[1].

    Sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.

    4. Don’t Apologize

    A common way to start out is “I’m sorry, but…” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important when you learn to say no, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm and unapologetic about guarding your time.

    When you say no, realize that you have nothing to feel bad about. You have every right to ensure you have time for the things that are important to you. 

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    5. Stop Being Nice

    Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. However, if you erect a wall or set boundaries, they will look for easier targets.

    Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.

    6. Say No to Your Boss

    Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss—they’re our boss, right? And if we start saying no, then we look like we can’t handle the work—at least, that’s the common reasoning[2].

    In fact, it’s the opposite—explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.

    7. Pre-Empting

    It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting,

    “Look, everyone, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects, and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”

    This, of course, takes a great deal of awareness that you’ll likely only have after having worked in one place or been friends with someone for a while. However, once you get the hang of it, it can be incredibly useful.

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    8. Get Back to You

    Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, try saying no this way:

    “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.”

    At least you gave it some consideration.

    9. Maybe Later

    If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say,

    “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].”

    Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands. If you need to continue saying no, here are some other ways to do so[3]:

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    Saying no the healthy way

      10. It’s Not You, It’s Me

      This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often, the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time.

      Simply say so—you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization—but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true, as people can sense insincerity.

      The Bottom Line

      Saying no isn’t an easy thing to do, but once you master it, you’ll find that you’re less stressed and more focused on the things that really matter to you. There’s no need to feel guilty about organizing your personal life and mental health in a way that feels good to you.

      Remember that when you learn to say no, isn’t about being mean. It’s about taking care of your time, energy, and sanity. Once you learn how to say no in a good way, people will respect your willingness to practice self-care and prioritization. 

      More Tips for a Less Stressful Life

      Featured photo credit: Kyle Glenn via unsplash.com

      Reference

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