Tag Archives: office politics

Alpha Dogs and Leadership

dogs-1231010_1280Because this blog was on hiatus all summer, I didn’t comment on the political stalemates and morasses during those months. And I’m not going to comment directly on the ongoing issues today. But what I saw over the summer—and what I continue to see this fall—reminds me of a situation I encountered many years ago involving “alpha dogs” in a corporate setting.

My work group attended a gender diversity program sometime in the mid-1990s. I was not in management at the time; I was one of several individual contributors who ranged widely in seniority. I was in the middle of the pack at the time.

One of the comments about gender differences that the facilitator made during this gender diversity session was that men often try to be the “alpha dog” in a meeting by one-upping the other men in the room. Women, on the other hand, care less if they are seen as the highest power in the room. (Keep in mind that this program took place decades before Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” philosophy became vogue.)

I might have forgotten this “alpha dog” comment, except that a few days after the diversity program, I was talking about it with a male colleague, one of the more senior employees in our group. He freely admitted, “That’s why I have problems with [our male boss]. He and I both want to be the alpha dog.”

I thought about it. He was right—these two men did both try to be top dog. And trying to be the alpha dog wasn’t working for my colleague, because he didn’t have the corporate authority to pull it off. He wasn’t the boss, but he often tried to be.

I made a deliberate decision. As a fairly young and introverted female, seeking to be the alpha dog wasn’t going to work for me either. Therefore, I would consciously act like I was NOT the alpha dog. I would not overtly try to one-up other people I encountered in the workplace. I would defer to others intentionally. I would seek to provide good service to my colleagues and clients, rather than to command them. That didn’t mean letting others step all over me, but it did mean not being arrogant or seeking top billing on projects.

I’ve written before about “servant leadership,” a philosophy that advocates leading by serving others. I didn’t hear of that concept until ten or more years after the 1990s gender diversity program, but it resonated with me when I learned about it.

How did servant leadership work for me?

Generally, it worked well, at least through the middle years in my career. Over time, there were more and more times when I had to take command and make decisions. And occasionally, I didn’t get as much credit for my work as I thought I should have. But those times were less frequent than one might expect.

However, there were times after I moved into senior corporate roles when more of a command approach might have worked better. There were definitely people—mostly men, but a few women—who took advantage of my understated approach or who thought me weak. I could usually deflect them by being the best prepared person in the room, but there were a few jerks who only understood power, who only thought highly of other “alpha dogs” and sought to be the “alpha dog” with everyone except the CEO. They were never my favorite people, but sometimes I did have to flex my style to deal with them effectively.

dogs-1231008_640Unfortunately, many of today’s leaders—particularly the partisans on both sides of the aisle in Washington—seem to be of the “alpha dog” mentality. One-up-man-ship is all they understand. And so our nation has become increasingly polarized. If more of them would exercise servant leadership, we would all be better off.

What leadership style have you generally used? When have you had to flex your style?

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Filed under Diversity, Leadership, Management, Philosophy, Politics, Workplace

Empower Yourself with the Truth: Step Three = Recognize and Use Office Politics Positively

In my last post, I wrote about asserting your own power, with themes from Chapter 6 of Geoffrey M. Bellman’s book, Getting Things Done When You Are Not in Charge. This week, I am commenting on Chapter 7 of Bellman’s book, on the fascinating subject of corporate politics.

I once had a guy who worked for me who said he hated corporate politics. He was a direct communicator and despised people he thought spent their time positioning themselves to look good. But there is a huge difference between office politics and sucking up.

So how do we deal with corporate politics in a positive way?

1.       Recognize That Corporate Politics Are Real

The theme of this series of posts about Bellman’s book is “empowering yourself with the truth.” The truth is that any group of people is political. The words “politics” and “political” come from the Greek word for “city” or “townspeople.” Any time people gather, politics are involved.

Get over your dislike of politics. It’s real, and it’s everywhere. Bellman says

“Politics has been called the art of getting things done. . . . They are not basically good or bad; they are neutral, to do with as we will. Political goodness or badness flows from the intent and impact of our actions.” 

It’s your choice whether your involvement in corporate politics is good or bad. What are your intentions and impacts in your organization?

 2. Base Your Actions on Your Principles

As Bellman points out, being a political actor does not mean giving up your principles. In fact, here is a summary of Bellman’s steps necessary to integrate your politics with your principles:

  • Know your principles 
  • Acknowledge the reality of corporate politics
  • Recognize that you are a part of the politics in your organization
  • Understand that you will have to consider the political ramifications of what you want to get done
  • Be clear ahead of time about what you will and will not do to use politics – who you will engage to support you and how. 

If you take these steps, you can participate in the politics of your organization without feeling like you are compromising your principles. Perhaps my colleague who so disdained politics needed to think about these steps.

3. Support Healthy Behaviors in Your Organization 

Bellman’s book, written in 1992 before the age of constant email and chats, is a little dated. He prefers face to face meetings over phone calls, memos and faxes.

But his point is that relationships are important in any organization, and relationships are best built face to face. How will you foster your relationships in today’s environment? In some situations, there is no substitute for the feedback and nuances of communication you can get in a face to face meeting.

Regardless of the communications techniques you use, you should find ways to connect with others in your organization. Determine what goals you share and how you can understand each other, even if you do not always agree.

Have your perceptions of office politics changed as a result of anything you read in this post?

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Filed under Human Resources, Leadership, Management, Workplace