Consultant Robert Bell Tells How to Avoid Getting Chewed Up in the Seas of Office Politics

updated 12/03/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/03/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

A hotbed of power plays, plots, rumors and cliques, the American corporation, as Robert Bell, Ph.D., sees it, is no place for an employee to wander unarmed. "The guys at the top aren't looking out for anyone but themselves," he insists. In his new book, You Can Win at Office Politics (Times Books, $15.95), Bell, former head of the management department of Fordham University's Graduate School of Business in New York, offers what he says is the best defensive weapon. It is a simplified, nonmathematical version of game theory, the algebraic reasoning method devised in 1943 by a mathematician and an economist at Princeton University as a way to determine the best course of action in real-life situations. As Bell applies it, it often means being as cunning and unscrupulous as your boss. Bell, who earned his doctorate in cybernetics from Brunei University in England in 1972, is now a consultant and lecturer. Apart from collecting corporate horror tales, Bell, 42 and single, writes plays and movie scripts in the Manhattan apartment he shares with "a mutt I rescued from death row." He discussed his unapologetically amoral prescriptions with correspondent Paula Span.

Aren't you encouraging people to be manipulative and opportunistic?

I am encouraging people to act pragmatically in self-defense. If merit is rewarded in your company, do the best job you can and you'll get ahead. But if you act honestly and openly in a company where politics, rather than merit, is rewarded, you may never advance and you may lose your job.

Is merit not valued anymore?

There's no question that merit is rewarded at some companies. But most companies are getting more political. For instance, there were 1,337 mergers, acquisitions and divestitures in the first half of 1984—200 more than in the same period last year. In virtually every case, middle managers got the ax. The post-merger situation is one of vicious power plays and an end to team spirit, and the merger trend isn't letting up. People need protection. Game theory is an equalizer, like a six-gun.

How can a corporate small fry use the same strategy as the Joint Chiefs or board chairmen?

In any situation, look at your options in terms of what you don't want but are afraid you might get. In other words, what are the possible consequences you most fear or would find least tolerable, and how likely are they to happen? Your own feelings are a much better tool in making personal decisions than an objective formula. Now pick the course of action that looks best and follow it. The reason I set it up this way is that people are usually more in touch with what they don't want than what they do want.

How does game theory help you fight, say, a negative rumor about yourself?

You don't want to have to go into a long-winded explanation. But if you don't respond, you might be viewed as snooty. If you counterattack, you might make the whisperer the underdog. Deal with the feelings of the audience. Here's an example that's farfetched but actually happened. A guy was so much better than his rival that he could finish work early and kibitz with people. His rival began spreading the word that the guy didn't have his heart in his work. To counter this, our man checked into a hospital complaining of chest pain. He got a clean bill of health, and people at work felt guilty. He out-underdogged his detractor.

Is it wise to try to turn rumors to one's own advantage?

You might use the information, but you have to do it in a way that doesn't open you to accusations of spreading rumors or acting on unfounded information. For example, if you hear about a job opening you're not supposed to know about, don't approach the boss about that specific job but tell him you're interested in a certain kind of job, the kind it just happens to be.

What if you suspect that your superiors are looking for an excuse to fire you?

Once people want to get rid of you, it's unlikely that you can change their minds. But you can buy time. An auditor in a New York ad agency heard that his boss was grooming someone to replace him. The boss gave the would-be replacement a new job, reporting directly to him. Normally the person in that job would report to the auditor. The boss held a meeting, expecting the auditor to protest. This is what I call a duel. If the auditor fought the duel, he would have looked like an obstructionist and could have been canned. Instead, he offered to train the new guy. This threw off his antagonist. It bought him several more months on the job, during which time he found work elsewhere.

What should you say when people ask you how a meeting went?

Say something noncommittal like "okay." Don't say it went lousy, if it did—that hurts your reputation. Don't lie and say it went wonderful—that hurts your credibility. Always say the same thing. When people hear on the grapevine that the meeting went well, and you haven't bragged about it, they won't think you're trying to show them up. And when you don't do so well they'll be supportive.

How do you avoid "the macho trap"?

That's the most common corporate trap. Everybody who's seen Rebel Without a Cause knows about it. James Dean and another kid drive stolen cars toward a cliff, and the first one to jump out is chicken. Business people are constantly engaged in the same silliness. The sure way to win at chicken, ironically, is to lose. I know of a guy who got his job as district sales manager with a big jewelry company in Los Angeles through nepotism. The salesmen hated him because he was new on the job and didn't know anything. His options were to establish his authority, prove he was more macho than they were, or soft-pedal his power, which is what he did. They became protective of him. They started teaching him the business and he became quite good at it. He deliberately lost the game of chicken.

Why do you recommend choosing sides in office conflicts?

For an entrepreneur, being a loner may be effective. But in a corporation, you must be in a faction whether you want to be or not. You need friends, information. If you don't have friends, in a takeover especially, you're likely to find yourself on the street.

Will you pay a price for not socializing with the boss outside the office?

Many people like their bosses and colleagues but don't enjoy the kind of socializing they do, like drinking. If you go along, you may be miserable. If you consistently decline, they may think you don't want to be around them, and you may as well kiss your aspirations goodbye. But there's a third choice: Invite the boss and colleagues to social events of your choosing. Have them over for dinner. One New York female manager invited the boss to join her and her husband at concerts. One memorable evening can make up for a lot of skipped bar crawls.

What's your short list of general dos and don'ts?

Don't tell the boss what's good for him. It suggests you're his equal and that you know his job better than he does. Don't think you need a mentor. It's hard to tell until it's too late whether or not your boss really has your interests at heart or knows what he's talking about. When negotiating for a raise or promotion, show your boss not what the company will get, but what he'll get. A loyal ally? A hatchet man? A tireless worker? Let him know subtly.

Why do you have such a jaundiced view of business?

I don't think I have a cynical view of business. These are all real stories. Production workers have unions. Top management has power. But supervisors and middle managers are taken for granted and therefore they have practically no job protection. In Japan, companies don't sack middle managers at the drop of a hat, and that will continue to give them an advantage in efficiency and morale. I'm trying to help these people arm themselves. The bullies don't have to win.

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