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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 October 18, 2018

    10 Key Characteristics of a Highly Successful Entrepreneur

    10 Key Characteristics of a Highly Successful Entrepreneur

    When it comes to starting your own business and pursuing your dream of becoming an entrepreneur, it can be advantageous to go all in and embrace the flexibility of finally quitting your day job.

    Keep in mind, though, that it takes a special kind of person to take the business world by storm: a person who has cultivated the key characteristics of entrepreneurial success.

    People with these characteristics are likely to succeed, whereas people without them have difficulty moving forward with even the most brilliant business ideas.

    These characteristics of an entrepreneur are so important that I’ve decided to cover all 10 of them in detail so that you can start your business with your best foot forward.

    1. Successful Entrepreneurs Practice Discipline

    Plenty of business experts claim that you can’t get anywhere as an entrepreneur without vision or creativity, but that’s simply not the truth. Instead, the one quality that no entrepreneur can be successful without is discipline.

    To build an idea into a business, you have to have the discipline to spend time slogging through the least fun parts of running a business (like the bookkeeping), rather than taking that time to do something fun.

    Andrew Carnegie, one of the most financially successful Americans of all time, grew up working dull and difficult jobs in factories. Despite going to bed hungry some nights, he continued doing his best work. He was eventually hired by a railroad company and continued to move up the ladder until starting his own successful businesses. Carnegie is a fine example of an entrepreneur dedicated to discipline and hard work. He truly earned his dreams of prosperity and success.

    When you’re the boss, there’s no one to keep you at work except yourself — and there’s no short-term consequences for skipping out early.

    Sure, if an entrepreneur plays hooky enough he knows that the business just won’t happen, but it’s very hard to convince someone that ‘just this once’ won’t hurt (and to keep ‘just this once’ from becoming a daily occurrence).

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    2. Successful Entrepreneurs Keep Calm

    Things go wrong when you run your own business.

    Most entrepreneurs go through crises with their businesses — and more than a few wind up with outright failures on their hands. But when you’re responsible for a business, you have to be able to keep calm in any situation. Any other reaction — whether you lose your temper or get flustered — compounds the problem.

    Instead, a good entrepreneur must have the ability to keep his cool in an emergency or crisis. It may not make the problem easier to solve, but it certainly won’t make it harder.

    Honestly, losing your calm is a quick path to becoming the kind of person who gives up in the face of adversity. Instead giving in to frustration, remember classic entrepreneur Benjamin Franklin.

    Franklin kept his calm as he experimented and tweaked his inventions again and again in pursuit of success. He didn’t give up during his many failures – he chose to innovate. You can choose innovation, too.

    If an entrepreneur can handle failure without frustration or anger, s/he can move past it to find success.

    3. Successful Entrepreneurs Pay Attention to Details

    Restricting your attention to the big picture can be even more problematic than ‘sweating the small stuff.’

    As an entrepreneur, unless venture capital has magically dropped out of the sky, a small expense can be a killer. It’s attention to detail that can make a small business successful when it has competition and it’s attention to detail that can keep costs down.

    Attention to detail can be difficult to maintain — going over ledgers can be tedious even when you aren’t trying to pay close attention — but keeping your eye on a long-term vision is just asking for a problem to sneak in under a radar.

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    After a business grows, an entrepreneur might be able to hire someone to worry about the details. In the beginning, though, only one person can take responsibility for the details.

    Skeptical about the importance of details? Look no further than Howard Schultz, who grew a small coffee shop called Starbucks into one of the most globally successful coffee businesses in the world through his extreme attention to detail.

    He is famous for taking all aspects of growing a business into account, paying attention not only to financially smart business decisions, but also focusing on socially responsible business decisions. Details can take you far.

    4. Successful Entrepreneurs Embrace Risks

    No entrepreneur has a sure thing, no matter how much money s/he stands to earn on a given product. Even if a product tests well, the market can change, the warehouse can burn down and a whole slew of other misfortune can befall a small business.

    It’s absolutely risky to run a business of your own and while you can get some insurance, it’s not like most investment options. Even worse, if something does go wrong, it’s the entrepreneur’s responsibility — no matter the actual cause. In order to deal with all of that without developing an ulcer, you have to have a good tolerance for risk.

    You don’t need to channel your inner frat boy and take on absolutely stupid risks, but you need to know just how much you can afford to risk — and get a good idea of how likely you are to lose it. If the numbers make you uncomfortable, the risk is too great.

    Embracing risks is essential for growth and additional success, as well. Walt Disney, for example, could have stayed comfortable with his advances in the film and animation industries, but decided to expand his brand with a new dream: a theme park that soared above the competition. Without taking this risk, the incredibly successful Disney theme park empire would never have come about.

    An entrepreneur has to be willing to accept pretty big risks, with some level of comfort.

    5. Successful Entrepreneurs are Balanced

    You can take any characteristic too far. There’s a point at which attention to detail can become obsession or calm can become unemotional response.

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    As an entrepreneur, you have to be able to balance your characteristics, getting the most of them without going over the edge. But balance for an entrepreneur goes far beyond keeping your characteristics in check, though.

    Just as an entrepreneur doesn’t have a boss to keep them at work when necessary, they don’t have one to send them home when they’re done. If you are working for yourself, you have to decide how to balance your work and home life — and if you have a day job to add into the equation, balance just gets more complicated.

    Oprah Winfrey, one of the most successful and influential entrepreneurs out there, understands the importance of balance. Winfrey has a lot going on; she runs her own media kingdom, acts, produces films, publishes print, and more. In an interview with Fast Company,[1] she talks about her efforts to balance priorities and self care, saying that she must ask herself what is truly important in each limited day.

    You may or may not have as much on your plate as Oprah, but learning how to balance whatever you have going on in life will certainly help you farther along down the road as you learn to be a great entrepreneur.

    6. Successful Entrepreneurs are Passionate and Motivated

    In order to develop any of the above characteristics, you must have a foundation of passion. Staying disciplined day after day during the building of your business takes unrivaled motivation.

    Before you start any business, ask yourself if you can sustain true excitement about your idea during even the darkest days ahead of you. If the answer is yes, then good for you! Nurture your natural motivation by taking these action steps throughout your business journey:

    • Commit to making short and long-term goals. Check in with them often to stay on task.
    • Have a plan in place for the inevitable days when you feel discouraged. Make a list of things that will help keep you motivated and focused.
    • Share your ideas with trusted individuals who are just as excited as you are. They will help keep your enthusiasm rolling even when you are feeling down.

    By being prepared for apathetic days and holding fast to your authentic passion, you can actually enjoy your journey to success.

    7. Successful Entrepreneurs Adapt

    Remember this one word: flexibility. Seasoned entrepreneurs know that change is not only a part of life, but also a part of the business world. Expect change and choose to adapt.

    As a new entrepreneur, it will be tempting to cling to your original business plan with no exceptions, even if you notice it isn’t working. Good entrepreneurs know that it’s okay to make smart, informed changes in order to ensure efficiency.

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    8. Successful Entrepreneurs are Marketing and Sales Experts

    No matter what kind of business you are starting, a knowledge of marketing and sales will save you many headaches. A passion for creating a beautiful handmade lifestyle product is not enough to run a successful lifestyle brand; it is critical that you understand key business principles in addition to your natural skills or great product line.

    Not sure how to start? Taking business courses is a great idea, but you can also easily brush up on sales and marketing through free online resources. Check out these 10 Sales Skills Everyone Should Master To Be Successful to begin now.

    9. Successful Entrepreneurs Have Strong Money Management

    Along with sales and marketing skills, money management is a very useful tool in the box of the entrepreneur. Understanding how to best manage your money can be the difference between early success and early failure in the business world.

    If money management isn’t your strongest skill, prepare to hire a financial expert to help you with any tricky business that comes up. Financial guidance and knowledge is never a bad idea.

    10. Successful Entrepreneurs Ask Questions and Continually Improve

    Pride is a natural human quality, but it’s important to humbly conduct some constructive criticism every now and again on both yourself as a leader and your new business as a whole.

    Assess how things are going and be willing to make positive changes if necessary. Here’re 15 ways to cultivate lifelong learning.

    If you are always improving, then how can you ultimately fail?

    The Bottom Line

    Let me remind you of one important fact: the qualities of an entrepreneur listed here are not exclusively available to some people and elusive to others.

    Although some people may have natural strengths and weaknesses, these qualities can be learned by anyone interested in taking up the entrepreneurial challenge. It might not be easy to change old habits, but it is absolutely possible to cultivate these characteristics in yourself.

    Whether you’re a business owner or an aspiring entrepreneur, with hard work, you can train yourself to develop the qualities that truly determine the entrepreneurial spirit and future success.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

    Reference

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