Sun, May 05, 2002 - Page 11 News List

Writer addresses office politics

ART OF THE BACK STAB `The end of office politics as usual' by MacGregor Serven discusses ways to deal with the many games played by Americans

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Lawrence MacGregor Serven's specialty is office politics, the people who play them, and the companies who tolerate them. Serven enjoys a lunch at The Roger Sherman Inn in New Canann, Connecticut.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

If you want to take on an unforgiving, and ultimately undoable task, try challenging Lawrence MacGregor Serven's heartfelt belief that office politics are not -- that's right, not -- an endemic part of human nature.

Try it -- again and again, with every permutation and combination of expressed doubt you can muster, as a lunch date stretches to a marathon four hours. He won't so much as raise an eyebrow, let alone a vocal decibel. In fact, he will compliment your question-asking skills, even as he sweetly stands his ground.

And therein lies the big difference between Serven and the back-stabbers he writes about. Like most of them, he oozes sincerity and is unfailingly polite. But where they rarely say things their listeners do not want to hear, Serven refuses to twist the truth or ingratiate himself, even to someone with the power to make him look smart or silly in print.

Yes, Serven's specialty is office politics, including the people who play the game and the companies that tolerate it. He writes on the subject -- the American Management Association just published his latest book, The end of office politics as usual -- and consults with companies about it. But unlike so many pop authors who purport to teach readers how to win the political wars, Serven has another mission: to end them. He truly believes that politics can be all but passe if a company sets clear rules and performance-based incentives.

"Office politics fills a leadership vacuum," Serven, a youthful 41, said over a lunch at a New Canaan, Connecticut, restaurant. "If you build a unified companywide team, politics won't have a place."

It's a pretty touching belief for someone who has met as many successful back-stabbers as Serven. There's Steve, who sabotaged a co-worker's computer the day before an important meeting, just so the colleague would seem less prepared. There's Karen, who withheld crucial information from the man who took her place while she was on maternity leave to ensure that she would be missed. There's Tamara, who got her job under false pretenses, then artfully unloaded duties that were above her head onto already overworked colleagues.

Serven ran into them -- and countless more like them -- as he observed workplace habits at companies that are clients of the Buttonwood Group, his management consulting firm in Stamford, Connecticut. He homed in on them and their ilk during focus groups he held, and he has worked with people like them himself in past corporate jobs.

The conclusion he derived -- aside from the fact that his examples and suggested cure-alls were fodder for a book -- was that the percentage of truly mean people who will always seek to shine at someone else's expense is actually pretty small.

"You can't legislate honesty, but you can certainly define consequences and change the rules of the game," he said. "That'll work with 90 percent of your people."

Serven believes that every company must rewrite what he calls its internal rule book. Set it up, he says, so promotions are a matter of selection, not elimination, and the Steves of the world have little incentive to wipe out anyone's hard drive. Make employees feel secure and appreciated, and the Karens won't worry as much about appearing indispensable.

It is not easy to prove whether he's right. But over the years, Serven says, he has seen what happens when spite, desire for revenge and plain ambition are allowed to reign untrammeled in the workplace. Here are a few lessons.

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