Liar, Coward, Politician: The Office Politics Game With No Right Answer…

jasonseiden Always Be Closing, Culture, Jason Seiden, Leadership

Hi, and welcome to my presentation! I’m at your company, I’m at the head of an auditorium, and you are one of about 300 people in attendance to hear what I have to say. (We’re pretending here. Play along, please.) Out of nowhere, I put up a slide that has one word on it. A controversial word, too. The word is:


I pause a moment, then ask the audience: “Take a look around you. How many of you believe that INixon2 made someone here uncomfortable by putting up this slide?”

Nearly every hand goes up.

Then I ask, “How many of you believe that I made many people uncomfortable, possibly even a majority of the folks in here?” Some hands come down, but many stay raised.

Until I ask my third question, “OK, now tell the truth. Raise your hand if this word made you yourself uncomfortable. C’mon, let’s see who you are.” The way I frame the question, and the tone of voice I use, ensures that nearly every hand goes down. “So everyone’s OK if I continue?” I move on quickly, before a single hand goes back up.

I continue. “Now, I just got your permission to talk about this subject,” I say, pointing at the screen, “But you and I both know that I didn’t, really. If I continue, I’m going to get in heaps of trouble. One of you is going to report later that you thought I used inappropriate material, and I’m going to get a call from the person who organized this presentation asking me to explain myself.

“And then I’m going to say, ‘What are you talking about, I got their permission!’ And the organizer is going to tell me I’m smarter than that, and then we’ll end up no place good.”

End scene.

So what happened? Did you lie to me when I asked if you were uncomfortable? Technically, yes, some of you did, but I can’t call you liars, because I manipulated you into it.

Were you cowardly? Here again, technically, letting me get myself into trouble and then tattling on me later *is* cowardly. But here again also, it’s not that simple.

By framing the situation in a specific way and using peer pressure to my advantage, I boxed you into a series of positions.

Guess what? That’s how politics works. Really good politicians feed you forced choices that don’t allow you to stand for your own position—they force you to defend or refute *their* positions, and they do it in a way that makes you look like a liar or a coward if you try to do the right thing. The process leaves you feeling slightly woozy—a little “What’s going on here?”—because you want to focus on the issue but the frame—the foundation—keeps moving under your feet.

In the example above, the *real* question I was asking during the presentation was, “Do you mind if I talk about sex in this business setting.” Asking it would have gotten me a “Yes, I mind” so I politicked you into “No.”

So, this is evil, right?

Nope. It’s genius.

The same ability that underpins office politics provides the genius behind our greatest stories, greatest inventions, greatest sales people, and greatest leaders.

It’s the ability to shift people’s perspectives and put new pictures in their heads.

When you see politics as evil, you resist trying to “own the frame.” As a result, you get pushed around by others, which reinforces your idea that politics is evil. But if you were to get yourself to start fighting for control of the frame, you would discover you have a lot more power than you realize.

I talk a lot about this issue in How to Self-Destruct: Making the Least of What’s Left of Your Career. Most people shy away from politics right when they should be fighting hardest for control.

Here’s an example of how to control the frame in that auditorium:

Raise your hand.  Stand up. Say, “I’m not uncomfortable with the word, but I *am* uncomfortable with how you’re presenting it. I feel I’m being led astray by you. Help me out with that before we potentially dive into such a hot-button issue, OK?”