They’re Playing the Power Game – Do You Play Too?

October 31, 2013 /LinkedIn/ – My recent post on power made the case that a relentless pursuit of power is the wrong mindset for anyone who wants to succeed in business – or, more importantly, in life.

The post generated some lively discussion in the LinkedIn comments, and colleagues of mine from Stanford and in the business community weighed in, too. Plenty agreed, a few didn’t.

In particular, people wanted to know what to do if, having climbed halfway up the corporate ladder, you find that everyone around you is still playing a ruthless power game. After all, it’s one thing to encounter a power-hungry pathology among aggressive young coworkers looking to prove themselves. But what happens when you get past all that, only to find yourself surrounded by seasoned executives who see their own “path to power” leading right through your office?

If that’s the case, should you ignore them and go about your business, hoping they’ll go away? Should you have faith that the people making decisions that could affect you will see through others’ power ploys?

The short answer is no. If you feel people are gunning for you, you shouldn’t be naïve or passive. That doesn’t mean you should go on a brutal counter-offensive. Instead, my advice is to remain confident and smart, and to continue doing what you’re best at, as best you can. As threatening as power-mongers might initially look when taking aim at you, they’re susceptible to overextending themselves. If you keep your feet on the ground, you should be able to survive any assaults. If, however, you find yourself constantly defending your own turf, that may be a signal to look for better career alternatives (see point #4 below).

If you’re drawn into conflict, the following notions may help keep your career on the right track, and your head in the right place:

1. Appreciate that there’s no shortcut to the finish line. Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire — world-class athletes all – achieved great feats. But they all have huge asterisks next to their names because they pursued their goals so relentlessly that they broke the rules. Unfortunately for them, it’s neither the Tour de France wins nor the home runs that people will remember – it’s the betrayal of trust. In business, we need only look to the sad examples of Jeff Skilling at Enron or Bernie Madoff and his Ponzi scheme to find a similar power-driven dynamic that ended not in triumph, but in lasting disgrace.

2. Think of competence as your “suit of armor.” Those most vulnerable to attack by the power-hungry are those who are either complacent or have failed to hone their skills to deliver world-class results. There’s nothing like performance – that is, doing what you say you will in the time frame allotted with the resources provided – to secure yourself against anyone thinking to win favor by grandstanding, politics or power grabs.

3. Build with quiet confidence. A Linkedin commenter, Georgina Popescu, made an excellent point on my earlier post: “Only those who are genuinely confident and profoundly authentic can exercise real power,” she wrote. “The really powerful people exercise their magic so smoothly that they do not need pompous presentations or lots of acronyms on their business cards. The name, a handshake and a straightforward look will do just fine.” Simple but profound: knowing that you are where you are because of who you are and what you’ve achieved should allow you to maintain the equanimity that will see you through assaults by those pretending to your position. As Georgina has discovered, if you’re really capable, it’ll take more than office politics and posturing to knock you out.

4. Think about a change of venue. If your company has become a battlefield for flagrant power players, it could be a sign of a larger problem: that the business is in trouble – or that it will be. Crisis has a way of elevating those who seize any opportunity to advance. It’s important to know when it’s time to leave a power-at-any-cost war zone so you don’t become a casualty, and lose a fight that will affect your career and your life.

5. See entrepreneurship as an option. It’s never been easier to start a company. Ending up in the crosshairs of power-hungry competitors at work might represent the impetus to take a chance on yourself. You’d be mistaken to think there’s not real competition in the marketplace and that power won’t be a feature of life outside the walls of your enterprise, but you may be happier striking out on your own. So, consider leaving organizational power struggles behind to find a better use of your energy and time.

Power is complicated. Without some power, it’s difficult to achieve personal or organizational objectives. But organizations trading in power politics can be crushing places to work. And co-workers grabbing credit at every turn can make work a drag. So if you’re in a place that allows the ruthless to show disrespect, the insecure to take credit, or the savagely ambitious to take the joy and meaning out of work, seize the only power that really matters: control over your attitudes, your values and the quality of the work that you do.

By Joel Peterson