Everyone is familiar with the concept of soft power in office politics. An individual lacking any formal authority but has the ear of management. The author of this brief essay has found himself in this peculiar situation. While I may have a relatively meager position at our company, my manager still seriously regards my input. If I have a concern, he is quick to find a remedy. The evidence of my implicit influence became evident when my boss was looking to fill a supervisor spot for our team. After a candid off-hand conversation, I expressed my preferred co-worker for the position. Then was subsequently told, “I like your logic”. Fast forward two weeks later, my preferred candidate was announced to be the new supervisor.
It is possible I misconstrued the events that transpired in the supervisor selection process. My perception of having any influence over my manager’s decision could merely be a delusional illusion. Irrespective of my impact on this decision, this was a clear Bootlegger and Baptist (1983) dynamic. At this point, it should be evident who the Bootlegger and who the Baptist is. My manager possessing the moral advocacy for the favorable candidate for the supervisor makes the Baptist. He seeks to hire an individual with the best potential for success within the position, the most qualified person. I hate to admit it; I was more motivated by self-interest. I am the salient Bootlegger in this coalition. I based my advocacy on wanting a supervisor that would not micromanage me. I had little concern for the candidate’s qualifications.
Social interactions generally constitute a series of various exchanges. Most instances of social exchange are typical non-economic. Whether it is two lovers on a stroll through the park exchanging affection through a kiss or a couple of friends trading pleasantries. Neither interaction involved an exchange of goods or money. Rather these individuals are trading intangible goods. Mutually shared friendships, trust, love, compassion, and even an intermingling of ideas cannot be easily quantified in the way products, services, and currency can be. Nevertheless, there is still value to these abstract fixtures in the realm of social engagement. A salient example of an attempt to categorize “social goods” is embodied in the term social currency.
Anytime there is something to gain, in the terminology of Game Theory a payoff, the potential for a Prisoner’s Dilemma exists. This is regardless of whether any tangible payoffs are possible. At the root of any exchange is trust. In the absence of trust, there is are no clear incentives for cooperation. This leads individuals to utilize uncooperative strategies. Once again borrowing the nomenclature of Game Theory, results in defection. Hence why the sections of American antitrust law focusing on collusion are fruitless. Why? Cartel arguments are tantamount to a textbook example of a Prisoner’s Dilemma, one of the firms always ends up reneging.
One common example of a Prisoner’s Dilemma experienced by most people is encountered in customer-facing interactions. Either as the client or as the vendor. This may sound like an unrelatable, highly sterile, and corporate description of this social dilemma. However, if you have ever been a customer you have experienced this predicament. Whether it was coping with a rude waiter, exhausting your patience with a clueless clerk, or getting hung up on by a call center rep, we have all endured this social dynamic. Naturally, we are right. After having the platitude “… the customer is always right…” seared into our subconscious, how could we ever be at fault? This hubris makes us the perfect reciprocal agitator.
The vendor has little incentive to be cordial and helpful when interacting with the client. The Client has little incentive to be civil to the hourly customer service representative assisting them. The client questions their capabilities and possesses a sense of entitlement. There is a huge caveat to this contingency. Both parties are willing to tolerate a certain amount of aggressive interactions before arriving at the tipping point. Firms being constraint by profit-loss mechanisms, employees implicitly understand that there are certain lines that you do not cross. Once you start costing your employer money, you are as good as gone. Vice versa, a customer service agent will only tolerate so much abuse before they quit.
Despite the customer service representative lacking faith that the customer will be cordial. The customer not trusting the abilities and intentions of the customer service representative leads to suboptimal results. Adopting either strategy is a form of defection. Both parties doing so concurrently results in a Prisoner’s Dilemma. In the context of business dealings, more than money and goods are being exchanged. Trading partners are trading on faith and goodwill. This extends beyond the linear money for goods dynamic that most people superficially ascribe to commerce. As the old saying goes business is a “… two-way street..”. Sure, the ludicrous demands of the customer can take primacy, however, if the interactions become too onerous the vendor may elect to drop the problematic client. At the same time, if the vendor does not accommodate the customer and is providing an inferior product, then they have every right to be irate.
The social dynamics of the workplace often provide ample examples of applied Game theory. Whether or not individual co-workers are deliberately implementing strategies based upon research in the field is questionable. For people who possess opportunistic proclivities, it seems as if they have an implicit understanding of game theoretical strategies without being familiar with the formal concepts. Most of the ambitious employees posed to ascend the corporate ladder are always making calculations. Like the political process the aspiring network and form alliances. They tactfully engage in subterfuge to place another contender vying for that prized promotion at a disadvantage. Sometimes the professional “gamer” will even leave a subtle calling card. I once encountered a manager who inserted a quote from the Art of War into his signature. Feeling particularly brazen I decided to ask him if he has ever read the book. He did. It came highly recommended and was told that he likes to apply it to business. I quickly distanced myself from this gentleman. I prefer to avoid Machiavellians.
The unfortunate reality of maintaining gainful employment is that it is a game. Even to remain employed never mind advance within the company, you will need to adhere to the rules of the game. You must adapt to the social norms of your employer. Each decision we make at work can constitute a strategy. Co-workers are merely our fellow players. The results whether it be obtaining a promotion, getting Jim fired, or flying under the radar would function as a payoff. Completely comprising the core variables of a game-theoretical definition of a game. Once we consider the incentives structure of the workplace it becomes quite clear that from an individual’s perspective it is frequently a noncooperative game. Yes, we do need to cooperate to get the process improvement project done. However, there can be various terriers of games simultaneously occurring at one time. It is important to remember only one person can fill that manager spot! The work-related “game” may be cooperative and productive while the interpersonal exchanges could be hostile.
Since there is a high potential for the implementation of noncooperative strategies, there is also a high probability for Prisoner’s Dilemmas. An individual being consumed by their agenda can make them blind to the fact that cooperation could be more effective than working against one another. Hostile strategies tend to waste resources and time. This example of misallocating resources is in of itself suboptimal. An individual’s effort and time could be re-direct completing a concrete goal. Rather than delving into the darkest depths of psychological warfare or other manifestations of non-cooperative strategies. The typical office environment is an environment rich with examples of Prisoner’s Dilemmas.
A prevalent example of a common Prisoner’s Dilemma that occurs in the work environment is job role training. It is evident that if you properly train a new co-worker that it is all around beneficial for everyone. It would even be fair to categorize properly training new employees as a positive-sum strategy. It creates less work for the trainee down the road to have an efficient and competent co-worker. It provides the trainee with a strong procedural foundation and will alleviate their frustration later. However, both “players” are prone to acting in a shortsighted manner. The trainer frustrated having the task of training the new person to their workload may do a cursory job explaining the intricacies of various processes. There may even be a deeper-rooted rationale behind the trainer’s apathetic approach, latent hostility. The trainer may perceive the new guy as a potential threat. Either due to him exposing tactics utilized to mask a light workload or even his natural aptitude. The idea of the new employee excelling and surpassing the trainer could be a possible concern. There is also the situation of the trainer having to train their replacement in the event of layoffs (yes, it happens). The reasoning for hostility in this scenario is self-evident.
Once the trainee is faced with the less than welcoming disposition of their trainer, odds are they will also adopt a noncooperative strategy. Even going so far as to retaliate against their trainer by reporting the aggressive behavior to their manager or H.R. department. The trainee has little incentive to work with the trainer as they have already committed to being uncooperative for arguably petty reasons. Only serving to create a quid pro quo series of personal or institutional retaliations. The trainer could start a rumor about the trainee, in an attempt to damage their reputation. The trainee could continue to escalate the involvement of various tiers of management and H.R. personnel. Regardless of which methods of retaliations are deployed by either party, no one is truly better off. Time and effort have been squandered through the course of the petty bickering. The new employee still is lacking adequate training. The trainer being too shortsighted to see that properly training their new co-worker would effectively lighten their workload downstream.
In my previous blog entry, I discussed the topic of rent-seeking in the office. I detailed three common forms of workplace rent-seeking. However, there are several other notable forms that I feel are worth mentioning.
This is more so applicable in the training process. The specifics of internal procedures are often colloquially referred to in an office setting as “tribal knowledge“. Individuals who are either paranoid or not confident in their position with the company will withhold information in the training process. They may refuse outright to properly train new hires. They may only provide a portion of the correct information. They may monopolize specific train materials. Through creating artificial information asymmetry they make themselves look more valuable and decrease their chances of being terminated. Making themselves the default team subject matter expert.
As the old saying goes you attract more flies with honey than vinegar. There is some validity to this statement. The candy bowl can be seen as either a trap or a peace-offering. Either way, it detracts from the true nature of the individual who maintains it. Typically, they are a very disagreeable and temperamental person. To soften their image they attempt to appear charitable by proving communal bowl filled with sweets. If your peers like you, you can get away with a lot. More accurately if you can bribe your peers after being nasty to them you can continue to get away with a lot. If your co-workers don’t have any lingering issues with your boss will keep you around. Why? If you aren’t disturbing the group dynamics there isn’t any reason to deliver punitive actions.
Plastering Your Cubicle With Positive Quotes:
Anyone plastering their cubicle walls with quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi is someone to avoid like the plague. If you make your workspace a billboard for inspiration quotes you most likely have a few skeletons in your closet. To be so extreme with advertising one’s proclivity towards positivity should be a red flag. An indicator of someone attempting to manipulate human psychology for their gain. It is meant to distract from their overt from their negative behavior. It falls into a similar behavioral category as self-promotion. The objective is to have others focus on what is most salient and not what is factually true.
One of the core principles of Public Choice Theory is the concept of behavioral symmetry. Behavior symmetry can be best defined as
“… the same behavioral model of human action must apply to all decision-makers regardless of institutional setting (public or private).” (Shughart II & Wardle, 2020, P.594)
This conceptualization firmly reflected in James M. Buchanan’s proclamation of Public Choice Theory being ” politics without romance“. Meaning whether you work in for the government or a private corporation your incentives generally don’t change. Working as a bureaucrat doesn’t dampen the allure of a high salary or generous benefits. Many people tend to view politicians and government employees as working towards the common good. Ignoring the fact that their decisions are not immune to self-interest. Demonstrating that this faulty assumption about civil servants is nothing more than a halo effect. The belief that government employees are striving towards a higher moral good than individuals employed by a corporation is illusory. People respond to incentives regardless of their occupation.
Considering the previously described application of behavioral symmetry, it wouldn’t be outlandish for a phenomenon that transpires in the public sphere to occur within a private institution. To take it a step further, to even claim that it takes place on an individual level. As in actions taken by a single person versus a solitary institution. Could the principles of Public Choice even be applied to the individualized interactions of workers in an office environment? Certainly! After all, incentives do not change. We are merely changing the environment and the scale of transactions.
The concept of rent-seeking tends to be commonly reflected in the behavior of office workers. What is rent-seeking? It can be described as a person or organization attempting to secure wealth without creating generating any productive output. Generally, this is done so by seeking an institutional advantage. Gordon Tullock, the theorist who developed this theory, utilized the example of tariffs to demonstrate a practical application for this concept. Governments typically do not impose tariffs on their own, but rather due to lobbying pressure from interest groups. Tullock referred to this variety of behavior as “wasteful” (Tullock, 1967, P.5). As a side note, Tullock may have been the architect rent-seeking, however, it was economist Anne O. Krueger who coined its name’s sake back in 1974.
Based on my observations of working in a corporate office there are three prevalent forms of workplace rent-seeking. This list includes: self-praise/ verbal demolition of co-workers, brown-nosing, and creating busywork. Any action or omission of action in the workplace is overtly economic. No one works for free. The only difference is scale. Many of these behaviors are anti-competitive. At work, your co-workers are your competition. All of these behaviors are attempts to secure gains without creating any additional wealth. Through damaging the image of co-workers or the individual improving their image, they are gaining potential job security which protects their paycheck. Typically, at the expense of the employer because this behavior does not distract from employees doing their jobs.
Self-Praise and Verbal Demolition of Co-Workers:
As the saying goes talk is cheap. Unfortunately, empty words have carried more clout than they should out on the sales floor. Anyone can pat themselves on the back and expound upon the “superior” customer service they provide. Especially when the boss is present. Much of this bluster, whether it is factual or not, skew popular perception. It is easier to take things for face-value than to look below the surface. If someone is persistently selling their skills and value to the company, it is easier to believe them than to validate their claims. Even when faced with contrary metrics many managers still fall into the folly of accepting the shameless self-promotion of these under-performing employees. This acquiescence is generally also reflected in the perceptions of this subpar employee’s peers. Despite all of the opposing evidence they will express a favorable opinion of this individual. Making the manager less inclined to terminate this individual. The manager would not want to jeopardize group dynamics. However, baseless self-promotion does is nothing but counter-productive and a waste of company resources.
The devious foil of Self-praise is the verbal demolition of co-workers. Portraying co-workers in a bad light to distract from an individual’s performance deficits. One common example is proliferating gossip and rumors. Even to be so brazen to fabricate formal complaints regarding interactions with individuals. For example, a false sexual harassment complaint filed with human resources. Gossip being on the lower end of the scale and fraudulent human resource reports being a more extreme form. Going to great lengths to assassinate the character of your co-workers requires a great deal of time and effort. It could be suggested that it would even be easier to just do your job. Versus wasting everyone’s time and resources with such puerile and sophomoric attempts at subterfuge.
Complimenting the boss, attending all of the social functions you are invited to, pretending to be his friend, laughing at all of his lame jokes. Brown-nosing, sucking-up… this behavior goes by many terms. No one every engages in brown-nosing without having a specific set of ends. Whether it would be the boss overlooking poor performance or giving other forms of preferential treatment. Such as being picked over more qualified candidates for a promotion. Why work harder when you could just work smarter? It is easier to go get drunk with your boss at a happy hour and pretend to be his best friend than to do your job. It is astonishing how many people in management fall for these naked attempts to curry favor with them. Then again an entire encyclopedia could be written about the psychology behind this mystifying phenomenon.
The image of busy workers is synonymous with productivity. Is this always the case? Not always. Sometimes workers will generate work or purposely utilize inefficient methods to complete tasks to create the perception of productivity. Some employees will go so far to create arbitrary tasks they will intentionally do their jobs incorrectly. Their pointless busywork would be correcting their own mistake. As perverse as that sounds, I have seen it with my own two eyes! Unfortunately, perception tends to carry more weight than substance. Even if that perception is illusory.
A more traditional example of this rent-seeking tactic is to intentionally procrastinate and then do all your work at the end of the day. To create the illusion that you are busy and working hard. Versus addressing action items as they come in throughout the day. Generating the image of having a mountain of work to do makes it look like you have a heavier workload. Making you less susceptible to being ousted out in the next round of layoffs. While counter-productive these methods aim to mask the fact that their position is nothing more than a redundancy.
Machiavelli was arguably one of the most dynamic minds of the Renaissance era. Some scholars argue that was the first pragmatic philosopher. Lending his contextual morality to thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand. The righteousness for its very sake can prove to be an impediment. Even stray us away from the greater good. This for any ruler would be to protect and defend their principality/kingdom. Being the first pioneer to venture into the dark waters of practical utilitarianism has made Machiavelli a symbol of moral impropriety. Forever staining his legacy as an intellectual and writer. To such an extent some are bold enough to claim that he was not even a philosopher.
The pragmatically-minded Niccolo Machiavelli provided some deeply profound insights into the study of politics. However, many of these insights are quite transcendent and shed light on the inner mechanics of human nature. Applying to more than the grisly and hallowed halls of the 16th-century Florentine royal court. Realizations that can be applied to better survive the duplicity of the boardroom or sales floor.
As in any work environment, disagreements are invariable. They are bound to happen regardless of workplace dynamics. The defining difference between successfully navigating such situations and being trapped in a spider’s web of drama is simple. Do not be neutral! I would also innovate upon Machiavelli’s point by including do not play both sides of the conflict. Remaining neutral or being a “double-agent” has several adverse effects. All will damage your reputation at work. It will make you appear to be dishonest, disloyal, indecisive, weak, and disconnected. None of these attributes will convey any leadership potential or valuable soft-skills. Rather it makes you look pretty foul professionally.
A prince is also esteemed when he is a true friend and a true enemy, that is when without any hesitation he discloses himself in support of someone against another. This course is always more useful than to remain neutral, because if two powers close to you come to grips, either they are of such quality that if one wins, you have to fear the winner, or not. In either of these two cases, it will always be more useful to you to disclose yourself and to wage open war; for in the first case if you do not disclose yourself, you will always be the prey of whoever wins, to the pleasure and satisfaction of the one who was defeated, and you have no reason, nor anything, to defend you or give you refuge. For whoever wins does not want suspect friends who may not help him in adversity; whoever loses does not give you refuge, since you did not want to share his fortune with arms in hand. (Machiavelli, 1532, P.89. Transl. Mansfield. 1985) .
Staying neutral or switching sides above all damages trust. As conveyed in the wise words of Machiavelli. If there are ongoing issues between a co-worker you are friends with and another co-worker. Your work pal is expecting you to stick up for them and have their side of the conflict. Anything else will damage your relationship. Granted, we are only talking about one co-worker, but the image is everything. If you appear as disloyal, dishonest, or fake word will spread. Typically you will not be the wiser. The true irony being many of the individuals proliferating gossip about you being fake are the same people that fall into this very same trap.
If you are neutral in an inter-department conflict the negative consequences are only magnified. If others cannot rely on you for support, how can you expect them to do the same? That is precisely Machiavelli’s point. Beyond appearing to be fake, you are burning bridges. People who may have been willing to help you through various conflicts or issues will be less inclined to. Like anything else in life, reciprocity is key. That doesn’t matter if it is a key ally being attacked by hostile forces or a dispute over the delegation of responsibilities at work. We all make cognitive assessments about our relationships. Everyone whether consciously or subconsciously is keeping a proverbial scoreboard. Similar premise to a bank account, if you don’t contribute anything the well will eventually run dry. It is best to bring what you can to the table. Whether or not you intend to protect a true friendship or solidify an alliance is another story.
To expect the benefits of a relationship regardless of its nature, without out reciprocating anything beneficial is presumptive. Very well could put you on the road to creating a new adversary. Machiavelli, the dark philosopher himself, recognized this. He understood to achieve anything you need the assistance of others. We are not marooned on a desert island like Robinson Crusoe. If you appear to be disloyal or to manipulative, you will eventually hit a brick wall. Leaders need the support of their subordinates. If you are under leadership you need the support of your leader and peers. Marring these ties with being the office gossip or being too timid to declare sides, is only a detriment to yourself. Wanting to keep the peace in the office is a laudable goal. However, it is far too idealistic and not within reach. If a dispute is unavoidable, you need to pick aside. The consequences of not doing so are much more profound than those of staying neutral. Having only enemies in the office is a lonely and treacherous road.