Article: The Dogs of (Office) War

Strategic HR

The Dogs of (Office) War

The game of office politics becomes enormously more complicated and lethal when one of the antagonists deploys a pack of underlings. Why is it difficult to counter this tactic and how can organisations reduce its incidence?
The Dogs of (Office) War

When I was a young innocent in the corporate world, I got into a conflict with the head of another department. He was only slightly senior to me in rank but far ahead of me both in age and political savvy. I’d like to believe I got the better of him in the conflict but not without sustaining considerable damage to myself, my team and my progression (at least in the medium term).

What I had overlooked was that my antagonist was actually the hit man for a far more powerful player – one who even I would not have been naïve enough to confront at that stage of my career. That oversight caused the first of the several maulings I was to receive by the teeth of the numerous Dogs of Office War (DOW) I encountered over the decades.

A few years later, I had progressed sufficiently to find myself in a face-off directly with the patron of the aforesaid DOW. I was still not a positional match for this 'padrino' but felt I had no choice if I was to guard the organisational value he threatened. Since the 'capo dei capi' had by then given me some signs of public recognition, I thought I had nothing to fear. I was wrong. It is true my 'blue-eyed-boy' status stopped my oversized opponent from confronting me openly or personally. That, however, didn’t prevent him from "ranging for revenge" and letting "slip the dogs of war". [1] They picked up numerous seemingly unrelated fights, each of which could easily be countered but which cumulatively took a heavy toll on my energies, my goal achievements and my reputation for carrying people along in the transformation journey we had begun. The price of tangling with a hunting pack of DOW is not small. 

Alert as I was to prevent a recurrence, I found DOW encounters were an occupational hazard for a CHRO seeking to drive change while holding some core values sacrosanct. This has been the experience of other HR leaders trying to make a difference – at least those who have not rolled over in the face of opposition and allowed their bellies to be tickled by powerful satraps or scions. Such struggles are usually neither even nor fair. Yet, every HR professional who has a change programme to fulfil must be able to confront pack attacks and emerge reasonably intact. 

Let’s first examine why, even at very senior levels, DOW offensives are serious hazards. Though I have tracked literature on office politics with some assiduity over the years, there is really not much research available on these wolf pack tactics. Bloodily acquired experience will have to suffice as the guide for understanding these infernally effective and invariably pernicious ways in which unscrupulous rivals can sink you or hole your career hull. 

With both arms tied and legs shackled

Those who have spent years in the corporate boxing ring and made it to the final rounds have, of necessity, learned to punch back [2] – sometimes even above their own weight class. But this is no preparation for facing a full-fledged DOW assault which, obviously, follows no Queensberry rules. One may come out of it alive but rarely unbloodied. No description that I can give of the DOW and their tactics can equal the one given by Kipling about "the dhole, the red hunting-dog of the Dekkan… They drive straight through the Jungle, and what they meet they pull down and tear to pieces… and until they are all killed, or till game is scarce, they go forward killing as they go." [3] In the case of the DOW, of course, the pack is not autonomous but operating at the behest and under the protection of a practised gamesman. Dealing with them is a Catch-22 prospect. 

The instinctive and wholly correct reaction of our (soon-to-be tragic) hero to the first DOW stings is to ignore them. After all, the DOW is usually much junior and it would be unseemly and ungallant to get into a scrape down such a vertiginously steep decline. Intellectually also the firepower of the victim is likely to overshoot the DOW targets. It seems pointless to explain, in nuanced and balanced terms, why the DOW slogans targeted to appeal to the fourth-standard (failed) mind, are too simplistic to solve the complex problem at hand. Very often, too, when attacks are not launched in the open, even displaying knowledge of their existence can reveal the sources of one’s information. The dialogue can then be hijacked in the totally different direction of punishing people who reveal confidential discussions – while, of course, denying they ever took place.

The matter, unfortunately, doesn’t go away if it’s given the LDB (Let Dogs Bark) treatment. Left unchallenged, the slur, slander or slight continues festering, draining the reputation acquired with years of effort and probity. More immediately threatening is the option available to (and sooner or later exercised by) the prime antagonist to claim publicly that whatever charge the DOW made was established since it wasn’t refuted. Over a period, particularly in HR, the entire function’s credibility comes into question, severely impairing its ability to launch new initiatives or even sustain existing ones.

There is no choice now but to go on the counter-offensive. However, no sooner do the first DOW feel the heat than their patron stands up for them, taking a paternally forgiving attitude and slipping imperceptibly into an adjudicator’s role.

This not only makes the attacked party on par with the DOW but a supplicant to the Patronus Maximus (or PatroMax, as we will refer to the ring-leader for the rest of this column) who now becomes the judge between the victim and the initial tormentor. While all this is going on, nothing prevents additional DOW from mounting their own sorties. As each such episode reaches its own untidy conclusion (after the initial LDB, the forced attention and the unhappy compromise), the targeted executive is de-energized, depressed and demoralized to the point where normal tasks suffer and reputation deservedly starts getting eroded. The final curtains come down on our tragedy in three acts.

I did not mention the possibility of meeting hireling with hireling i.e. setting up a DOW network of one’s own. This is the ultimate disaster for an organisation. However much each protagonist commits to abjuring first use, DOW networks are expensive to maintain without having the rewards of victory to distribute among the lead DOW. The temptation to launch a preemptive DOW strike is just too great. Thereafter, the entire organisation descends into cabals and coalitions – severely impeding its performance.

The DOW advantage

So far we have looked at DOW from the point of the doomed hero. Time to consider why individuals take the trouble to set up a DOW network and, on the other hand, why people subject themselves to such dubious henchmanship. For the time being, we shall ignore the unlikely possibility that the DOW are ideologically committed to a noble management cause or the likelier chance that they get some pathological pleasure out of tormenting others. [4] 

The greatest advantage the PatroMax gains out of having a DOW gang is the leeway it provides for letting them take the extreme positions that s/he desires (but doesn’t publicly own), which can then become mainstream if there is no general condemnation or counterattack by the target. On the other hand, if there is much revulsion or resistance, PatroMax has plausible deniability and a choice of how much to protect or sacrifice the DOW. The abandoning of a couple of DOW, especially those who have far exceeded their briefs and lost their usefulness, cements the generally perceived value of PatroMax as the last bastion of hope against more extreme points of view. Lastly, the fear of DOW ensures the silent majority (and, if pusillanimous enough, even the unit leadership) vocalizes its views only when they are supportive, if not effusively admiring, of PatroMax.

The people for whom the game offers maximal ladder-climbing benefit are the surviving DOW, who have played the ophidian role in the snakes and ladders game of corporate politics. There can be unmerited rating improvements and out-of-turn promotions when the DOW are in the reporting hierarchy of the PatroMax. 4 Even when they are not, they can be singled out for participation in high-visibility task forces, given additional hats that can be seen by the top management from afar and get recommended for rapid career progression at inter-collegial committees where PatroMax participates. This last can put the DOW-targeted executive in the unenviable position of losing the loyalty even of formal reports as they believe they owe their rise to PatroMax and hold an eternal grudge against their formal leader if s/he attempts to slow it down. On top of it all, there is the high need for power which most PatroMaxes exude and which appeals to the need for strong leadership many have in our culture. [5]

Decreasing DOW Dominance

Taking for granted that some degree of jostling for power is inevitable in any human agglomeration, we will focus on minimizing its ill effects in corporates when formations like the DOW make competition unhealthy and unfair. The three best ways of achieving this are lowering the Organisational Political Temperature (OPT), raising the People Process Robustness (PPR) and installing functioning Channels of Independent Appeal (CIA). I shall illustrate each of these with a real-life example.

As mentioned before, one of my earlier jobs was in a unit that had deep political tows below the surface. Much as I hated being caught up in these dangerous currents, I owe my own political 'nous' to that blooding. In contrast, I also had the joy of working in a very low OPT environment where little energy needed to be diverted away from organisationally important goals to powering political protection shields. The key difference between the two situations was that in the latter case we had a leader who kept his ear close enough to the ground to be aware of incipient impression managers and nascent DOW groups.

Thus, a combination of willingness to spend time on the minutiae of interactions several levels below him, shrewdness to see through the games people play and fairness while nipping conflicts and stratagems in the bud, kept the OPT to double-digit Kevin at worst. Proof that the leader was the prime reason for the OPT being so low came as soon as he started giving up active control and OPT reached room temperature shortly, with every likelihood of going higher. The size and complexity of the organisation can hugely raise the OPT upper limit and, contra-wise, in small arenas even average quality leaders can keep track of political machinations. Incidentally, this is one reason why leaders who have earned their spurs in smaller and simpler enterprises, flounder if they are suddenly catapulted to the upper reaches of global conglomerates. In sum, leadership style sets the dial for the desired OPT and leadership skill determines how far from the leader’s direct sight the setting will actually be effective.

One of my MSME clients who called me in for a detoxification programme (unfortunately, companies can’t be admitted to rehab clinics) was puzzled to find me recommending an overhaul of key HR processes, starting with the Performance Management System. These systems had been installed several years earlier by an HR & Admin Head who had freshly retired from the Army at that time. Fine administrator though he was, he chose to use an Annual Confidential Report (ACR) as the base for most reward and grade progression decisions. Some sincere people chose to play the game by the rules. There were others, however, who found it easier to bump up their ratings by carrying out the behests of their supervisors.

If the latter were in a power steeplechase and needed DOW, they enrolled themselves as canine first-class. An objective target-setting and open appraisal process with another countercheck on the potential of candidates for significant upgrades took over a year to institutionalize. But the resultant improvement in PPR had an almost immediate effect on OPT and, a short time thereafter, on the rise of the leaders who had made DOW their weapon for destroying rivals. 

Before India became an attractive destination for fast-tracked executives in multinationals to build their careers, it was the dumping ground for misfits who were not tolerable in first-world environments. A CHRO I know closely had the misfortune to get, as a senior business partner, such a personage. The expat in question not only had a colonial mindset but the attitude that, if he had to put up with local managers in technical domains because he couldn’t do all that work himself, there certainly was no reason to be advised by an Indian on HR. He made it clear, both to his direct reports and others who vied for the expat’s favours, that griping to their 'vertical' heads about the poor local HR support would not be amiss.

There were two reasons this master plan came unstuck. First was the professionalism and honesty of the business HR leads who the DOW needed to build the case demanded. Even more vital was the rock-solid support the India CHRO got from the global HR leadership. Rare as it may be for the better-known version of the acronym, this CIA saves the day repeatedly when local recourses are unavailable. Importantly, ombudsmen, group headquarters and independent directors (especially those on nomination and remuneration committees) are also valuable nodes to have at the other end of the independent appeal channel.

Snowball's fall

Many of my idealistic younger readers may find all this political strategizing and counter-strategizing repulsively dark and demeaning. Surely logic and organisational interest are sufficient to convince everyone and clear impediments from the path. After all, despite the doubts, many had about the vital windmill project, "… in a moment Snowball's eloquence had carried them away... By the time he had finished speaking, there was no doubt as to which way the vote would go." A clear victory for the rational choice, powerfully presented. Unfortunately, that’s not the note on which the story ends. At a signal from PatroMax Napoleon, "… there was a terrible baying sound outside, and nine enormous dogs wearing brass-studded collars came bounding into the barn. They dashed straight for Snowball, who only sprang from his place just in time to escape their snapping jaws. In a moment he was out of the door and they were after him… One of them all but closed his jaws on Snowball's tail, but Snowball whisked it free just in time. Then he put on an extra spurt and, with a few inches to spare, slipped through a hole in the hedge and was seen no more." [6] Learn from Snowball's fall – don’t imitate it!

 

X--------------------------X

 

References...

 [1] William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 1

[2] Visty Banaji, The Faustian Triad, 27 July 2020, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/life-at-work/the-faustian-triad-26460).

[3] Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book & The Second Jungle Book, Wordsworth Classics, 2018.

[4] Karen Cacciattolo, Defining Organisational Politics, European Scientific Journal Special Edition:238, August 2014.

[5] Visty Banaji, Music and management, 5 February 2020, (https://www.peoplematters.in/blog/life-at-work/music-and-management-24574).

[6] George Orwell, Animal Farm, Peacock Books, 2018.

 

 

Picture credits - ET

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Topics: Strategic HR, #GuestArticle, #PerformanceBeyondProductivity

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