Friday 8 March 2013

Changing Office Politics?

I contributed this week’s ‘Connecting with Culture’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

Oliver James, psychologist, broadcaster, and author of best-selling books on the family and capitalism has now turned his attention to work, in Office Politics: How to Thrive in a World of Lying, Backstabbing and Dirty Tricks (Vermilion, 2013). In keeping with those earlier volumes, what he describes here is not a pretty sight.

While hubris, greed, and self-interest have always existed in the workplace, what has changed, he says, is ‘the extent to which they have become the norm’. James documents a ‘dark triad’ of characteristics, particularly common among senior managers: ‘psychopathy (cold, callous ruthlessness), Machiavellianism (manipulative game-playing) and narcissism (me-me-me grandiosity)’, with some exhibiting two or even all three of these behaviours.

Based on a combination of case studies and interviews he conducted for the book, James looks first at spotting such ‘toxic colleagues’ before exploring how to improve one’s ‘office political skills’. We can’t avoid getting involved in office politics, he claims, as a necessary component of our emotional health. What matters is ‘impression management’, for which James recommends a combination of acting skills, astuteness, ingratiation, go-getting assertiveness and virtuosity, taking careful account – in our dealings with others – of timing, target, and location.

Whether or not the analysis of the contemporary office is correct, there is much here for Christians to engage with: a reminder of the deeply damaged nature of human beings; the hope that God’s ‘common grace’ means things won’t be quite as bad as the picture James paints; the need, therefore, to celebrate the pleasant and positive relationships which are a daily reality in many workplaces.

Perhaps most significant, though, is that little hope is held out for the possibility of change. It’s more a case of survival, of careful navigation through a murky world.

The gospel, of course, offers much more – the redemption of men and women who then undergo a process of personal transformation. Moreover, as Timothy Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf point out, in Every Good Endeavour: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World (Hodder & Stoughton, 2012), Jesus gives his followers a ‘new compass for work’ – a different set of virtues, a different view of humanity, a different source of guidance, and a different audience – called to serve the Lord and others in love.

Then, in serving and loving, we may well find we are given a measure of influence for good, wherever we find ourselves.


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