Navigating Office Politics: When Real is Fake

War is hell” said William T. Sherman – and most likely right before he burned down Atlanta (image right) on his famous “march to the sea” during the United States Civil War.

Sherman Burns Atlanta on March to the Sea

Office politics are a close second, particularly in the types of workplaces that either tacitly permit them or promote them.

In those atmospheres – not unlike some of the world’s cultures – to operate effectively you have to be quasi schizophrenic; keep separated what you think and believe, and what you say you think and believe. Those are the types of places where a “yes” does not mean agreement, it simply means your words have simply been heard.

The Quora question from an anonymous poster (anonymity no doubt to protect himself / herself) was typical:

Why does my boss act differently when we are outside of work? When we are both in the office, he is friendly, humorous, nice and warm. Once we are in the elevator or literally outside of the office building, he closes up and there is an uncomfortable vibe.

My advice to the Quora poster – similar to what I advise my C suite exec coaching clients – is “keep your eyes open.”

People like his / her boss at best lack a certain human authenticity – who they are is more situational, rather than constant and durable. While I suspect we all have shades of situational behavior depending on the role we’re in  (i.e. parent at a kid’s soccer field, manager at the office, cyclist on the road, etc.), your degree of authenticity informs behavior to a constant or inconsistent degree. People who are warm and fuzzy in one setting and Attila the Hun in another are disjointed – and not so genuine.

Similar to a recent piece by Eric Felten from the Wall Street Journal, “Fake Authenticity for Sale” – detailing how some Levi’s sold by Brooks Brothers may have the Levi’s brand but they area made in the United States by somebody else – you should always assume that the way you see people behave toward others is the same way they may behave towards you.

Keeping your eyes open means that you can assess the behavior happening in front of you. It is not judging (though it may come to that later) – it’s simply recording what behavior you are seeing, how it happens, and any impact it might have. It’s not what people say they do, it’s watching what people actually do.

Authentic means that something is genuine; it’s the real deal. In the case of the Brooks Brother’s Levi’s – as well as the Quora boss, they are not.

Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge, note that great leaders “create a climate of of trust” – and “that without trust you can not lead.” Trust in my mind has three elements – motive, competence, and reliability. And there may be a fourth – vulnerability, a quality that is powerful in itself (see Brene Brown: The Power of Vulnerability via

As Kouzes and Posner report, research shows that trust by leaders increase performance by both groups and individuals. Trust on the part of leaders gets evidenced by being candid, open to influence, and sharing resources and information.

Part of being highly effective in organizations or with people is being able to assess what’s going on in front of you. It doesn’t mean you play the office politics game; it does mean that you know it’s being played. You understand it (Office Politics as Usual The Secret Handshake– the Economist)- not agree with it. How you behave is up to you, but my take – given the amount of spin and politics that can go on – is that being genuine and real can frequently be the breath of fresh air that is sometimes missing in the C suite.

It’s what I recommend to my exec coaching clients; it’s what the research shows separates the OK leaders from those that are truly great.

Just be sure to have your eyes wide open.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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