Office politics take place in any office, the whole world over.
This article will present you with the archetypes of the major office power players.
What’s their strategy, why they do it, an example of a real-life scenario and, finally, how you can deal with it.
#1. The Tasker
“Can you please do that for me? Thanks!”
The power dynamic of tasking-executing is that people who assign tasks are bosses, and people who execute those tasks are subordinates.
By telling others what to do, taskers are positioning themselves as the most powerful party in that relationship.
Taskers are very power-conscious individuals.
Some of them resent being told what to do by their bosses and, in a sort of “the oppressed becomes the oppressor dynamic”, they seek revenge on their colleagues.
In some cases, taskers can also be insecure bosses who tell their reports what to do in very direct ways just so they can “show who’s boss” (the meme above is a humorous example).
And finally, the last category of taskers are highly ambitious individuals who want to climb the corporate ladder and have a good career.
In their warped minds “being the boss” only means having power over others, and tasking is their way of showing that power.
Usually, they pick people whom they think are easy to boss around. However, the most ambitious and dominant of them will try to talks almost anybody.
The most knuckleheaded taskers will even try it with their own bosses.
Poor Team Players
When you’re in the presence of a continuous tasker, 95% of the times you’re in the presence of a power conscious, selfish and often socially ruthless individual.
These people are very poor team players because they see workplace politics in black and white terms: there are those who give orders and those who execute.
No teams, no squad, no friends.
Office Power Play Example
Here are typical expressions of tasking:
Tasker: Can you please do X for me
The standard format.
Tasker: Can you (please) take care of it by EOB it’s very important
The “very important” bit makes them sound smart and strategic.
It’s indeed people with high-level visions who are able to assign the correct priority to tasks.
And as they look strategic and leader-like, you become the tactical pawn who executes orders.
Tasker: Can you come here please, I need your help on something
When you move to them, you look like the flunky who’s supporting the one who does real work.
Tasker: Thank you for taking care of that for me
It’s cushioned as if they are thanking you, but it’s a power move that makes them sound like magnanimous leaders who properly recognize their teams’ work (also read “hidden power moves“).
Tasker: (Standing up to go to the meeting room) Come on, let’s go
With this one, they lead, you follow.
They make it seem like you were in standby, waiting for them to be ready. It looks like they were wrapping something important and you were doing nothing.
Also read: what to do when someone makes you wait.
Junior Employee Power Move
There is a version of tasking that the most junior employees seem to relish since the entry barriers are smaller and it’s more difficult to push back.
- Asking for small, inconsequential stuff, just to show they matter
- Asking to execute things you were going to do anyway
I wouldn’t even know which one is more annoying.
#2. The Grumpy Players
The grumpy players operate on the assumption that the less people can task them, the more office status they acquire.
They play office politics very defensively, fortifying their desk-turf from encroachment and keeping as much as their time for themselves.
Who Are Grumpy Players
By and large, grumpy players are unhappy people with little social life.
Some of them are grumpy because they are frustrated with their own insignificance, both in the office and outside of it.
In some other cases, they can be very asocial, introverted or at odds with people.
If that’s the case, they are defending their “me” time and the only refuge of safety they have: with themselves.
In rare cases, they are simply trying to defend against very aggressive taskers but have no idea how to do it assertively.
And that’s why the two types of grumpy players are:
- Passive aggressive
If you are afraid of approaching a colleague because they always seem on the verge of exploding and yelling at you, you know the aggressive type.
Finally, watch out for grumpy players who are grumpy with a few selected people or only with you. You might be dealing with ego-defense mechanisms or… It might be the case they simply don’t like you.
I dealt with lots of grumpy older player in my first real job as a consultant.
Grumpiness, in that case, was a defense mechanism.
They were rejecting being told what to do by someone whom he perceived to be a nobody who knew nothing about his business (and they weren’t wrong :).
Their Office Power Strategy
Most grumpy players don’t have huge ambitions or, if they had, they have been thwarted by years of stagnating career -of course, who would promote them?-.
Some grumpy players are aggressively lazy -or, more rarely, busy with their own stuff.
If that’s the case, their aggression is a (very entitled) way of defending their free time.
Office Power Play Example
Milton in the movie “Office Space” is a type of passive-aggressive grumpy player:
All Milton is communicating here is “don’t bother me, leave me alone”. He’s not powerful in any way, but he wins anyway (and frustrates his colleague).
The aggressive types are worse.
If Milton had been an aggressive type, he might have pretended not to hear his colleague calling but he would have made it a point to look more and more nervous.
In that case, the message is “go away or I’ll blow up on you”.
At the far end, they have anger management issues with Mad Max in “The Wolf of Wall Street” being such an example.
How to Beat Grumpy Players
The standard advice of getting close to them not fully wrong because sometimes it works.
When colleagues are grumpy because of personal issues it’s possible to pierce their defense mechanism and become their best (and possibly only) friend in the world.
You can then have a huge influence on him/her.
But from a political and social status point of view, it’s a double-edged sword.
Grumpy players are rarely high flyers and unless you’re already a highly skilled social master, associating with them might drag you down.
As Robert Greene says in “The 48 Laws of Power“: avoid the unhappy and unlucky.
And the grumpy players.
Here is the rule of thumb for you:
Befriending losers as a powerful man is an act magnanimity.
Befriending losers as a powerless man is a case of “misery loves company”.
-The Power Moves
#3. The Sticklers For The Rule
“Please stick to the guidelines“
“Sticklers For The Rules” stake their claim to power with laws, regulations, and SOPs.
“Sticklers For The Rule” have lowish social skills and low emotional intelligence.
However, they can be very assertive and they even look confident and in control.
The confidence is mostly a front though and they rarely are individuals of strong character.
And that is why they hide behind the rules.
Aggressing others or defending your position becomes indeed much easier when you can claim the law on your side.
Sticklers can be very power conscious.
On paper, they say they are following procedures and making sure everyone is on the good side of the law.
But in reality, they are piggybacking the rules for their own personal power.
Their Office Power Strategy
“Sticklers For The Rule” are after office social status.
When they become the “go to guys” to check procedures and when they become known as “the rules guy”, they become someone.
Specifically, they become somebody in the small pond of the office world.
When they are after power or when they engage in turf defense, they see the organization as a big org chart where only official authority lines matter.
If you have official authority over them, they will comply. If not, they’ll relish sending you packing.
Their Power is Limited
The power of sticklers for the rule is limited though. They move up a little, but there is a (well deserved) glass ceiling for them.
The movers and shakers make things happen.
The sticklers for the rules instead are not focused on making things happen and improving the organization. They would be happy to go down in flames… As long as they do it following SOPs.
Office Power Play Example
Here are some examples of typical Stickler’s political games:
You: hey hi man, my keyboard broke, they told me you guys can help
Stickler: please go through the official channels and ask my boss for allocation I’m busy now
Maybe you’re just asking for a favor, something that you would have no problem doing for them… But nope, they hide behind the rule to tell you to f*ck off.
The worst is that you can’t even get angry because, well… Officially they’re right.
That’s why the lazier types of sticklers for the rules are very harmful in unstructured organizations and project-based companies.
In these environemts, it’s easier for them to refuse cooperation and harm productivity.
Stickler: do you have the badge with you? You need to have the badge or I will not let you in
Unless there are really good reasons to adhere to the rule, they are most often power tripping.
Sometimes people revert to Sticklers when defending against what they perceive an abuse of power, as it happens in the movie “Edge of Tomorrow”:
And of course, a wonderful power move on Sticklers is to actually get authority over them, as in the example.
Make sure not to rely solely on power bending though, in the long run, it’s a poor strategy.
#4. The Overachievers
“The world, chico. And everything in it“
You know these ones, don’t you?
- Speak too much at the meeting
- Seek responsibility and power positions in all fields
- Unashamedly take all credit even though it’s been a team effort
When there is some credit to loot, the overachievers takes no prisoners.
Overachievers are partly inborn and partly nurtured (Judget et al., 2010?).
Nurtured overachievers who grew up in families with high expectations, for example with narcissistic parents (McBride, 2008), are more likely to feel the pressure of having to perform and they’re more likely to be stressed out.
Inborn overachievers do it for themselves. Some of them “enjoy their own drive” and don’t get nearly as stressed out.
There are several types of overachievers:
- Dr. Jekylls= they can be nice on their own or when nothing is at stake, but turn into monsters in the presence of bosses, upper management or opportunities to “shine”
- 24/7 overachievers = it’s “always on” with them, they never stop pursuing power opportunities. You can’t be friends with them and they’re often lonely
- Socially skilled = these are the most dangerous. They put on a facade of fairness and caring and it takes really emotionally intelligent people to sniff them out early
Usually, overachievers are highly in personal drive and low on empathy.
They have this big target in life that keeps them going and moving like a hamster in a wheel.
Not all of them are low on empathy, but the difference is epistemological only. Whatever empathy they have, it gets tramped by their ambition, which is always bigger than other people’s consideration.
The Lies of Overachievers: Cognitive Dissonance
Non-sociopath overachievers, which is the majority anyway, justify the cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957) of their unethical actions with ad-hoc narratives that make it possible for them to keep abusing the system -and the people- without feeling any emotional blowback.
Some of these narratives can look like this:
- I’m a fundamentally good person, it’s good for everyone if I win
- The company matters more than anything else, and I’m fighting for the company
- I was robbed of a chance in life, I have to fight for my fair share
- Our vision is to help a billion people, if 100 get trampled along the way, I’m still making the world a better place
Sometimes the company vision of “helping people” is recruited to justify the killing of some other people.
But the truth is that, the vast majority of the times, the overachievers do it for themselves.
And just for you to know, most CEOs are overachievers.
Office Power Play Example
Tracy Flick in the movie Election is an example of the 24/7 overachiever (some people dubbing her “young Hillary”):
“Election” is a great movie to understand the psychology of overachievers (and the seduction technique depicted in the scene is also a great and realistic one).
How to Beat Overachievers
It’s relatively easy to isolate and maneuver the socially unskilled overachievers.
Everyone can see and feel the ugly side of their ambitions so your job is just to throw the match on the tinder and watch them burn (socially! :).
The problem starts when overachievers grow skilled enough that they can mask their real selfish intentions with a layer of sociability or pro-sociability.
It might also be the case that you will be one of the few to know or see the “real” them.
If that’s the case, you must make sure you’re also not the only fighting them!
And never, ever tell them they’re horrible persons before you’re well equipped to start (and win) the war:
Never openly communicate your distaste for overachievers and never show that you know what they’re up to.
Only attack them when you’re strong enough to destroy them.
And don’t you ever think you can “help” an overachiever by telling him about his overachieving ways.
Yes, they might feel disgusted by themselves, but they’ll blame you for it. And their next achievement will be getting rid of you.
#5. Suck-Up Players
“Just like you said, boss“
The suck-up players are all about fawning on their bosses.
They shower their managers with compliments, listen to what they say as they nod and always say yes.
Contrary to what some people believe, brown-nosers are rarely highly ambitious or highly driven.
They might want to be bosses one day, but rarely can they even fathom themselves as CEOs or entrepreneurs.
Brown-nosers indeed live in a small world that they never transcend.
Often are motivated by fear and the search for security. Just like a baby wants his mother to be present and caring, a brown noser wants his boss to be protective.
Their Office Power Strategy
O’Neil in the movie Platoon is an example of a suck-up player with Barnes:
Barnes is not a typical boss though. Most bosses enjoy having a few suck-up players. It strokes their egos, which is what makes the suck-up players relatively successful in winning the boss’ graces.
#6. Power Aligners
“That’s not what we stand for. This company believes in… “
Power aligners seek power by aligning themselves with power.
They take on the same values as the boss, of the company (or both) and champion them as if they were their own.
Some people confuse power aligners with brown-nosers. And while there is certainly some overlap, they’re fundamentally of a very different breed.
Brown nosers suck up from a position of subordination and they (unwittingly) tend to tie their fortunes with their bosses. And that, as Robert Greene correctly notes in “The Laws of Human Nature“, is not a smart idea.
Power aligners are strategically smarter instead.
They align with the more general zeitgeist, or to their boss, and it’s all part of a grander strategic vision of power.
Power aligners also tend to have more power then suck-up players.
They vary in gradient of course, and they range from “almost pure brown-nosing” (Mike Pence) to “almost at the same level as the boss”.
In a way, Power Aligners take a social approach to power. They look at what the culture seeks and promotes, and then they reflect it back on them.
Office Power Play Example
Here is an example of a low-quality Power Aligner delivering a figurative stab in the back:
And the way she handled it… Perfect.
Or imagine a team meeting with your boss, you are making the case that a customer was abusive to you:
Power Aligner: But that’s not what we stand for. It doesn’t matter what the customer said to you. I know it can be hard, we are here to offer the best service we can, no matter what
How are you going to reply to that?
The boss is nodding at the power aligner’s comment and you’re now in a catch 22.
Tell them they’re right and they win.
Keep defending your position and you dig yourself deeper. And that’s the power of power-aligning.
Power Aligner: Did you ask if they could give a discount? Always ask for a discount, it can save us a lot of money
See what they’re doing?
Acting like your future boss and presenting themselves as representing the company -“us”- (yeah, sure).
Even if you say you did ask for a discount, you are still proving yourself to them.
Their Office Power Strategy
Power aligners use a smart strategy well founded in psychology.
To begin with, we all like people who are like us (Cialdini, 1994) and power aligners mimic their bosses personality and value.
Second, we are all hardwired to seek in our ingroup people who support us and, as legendary GE CEO Jack Welch explains in his book Winning, management wants to promote people who back their ideas.
Slipstream Power Players
It’s worth mentioning here that there is a specific type of power aligner, and they are the most dangerous of them all.
I will call them “slipstream power players” because they mimic the overtaking technique used in motorsports.
Similar to slipstream overtaking, slipstream players align to the boss today, to overtake him tomorrow.
There is a lovely business example in a great movie called “C’eravamo Tanto Amati “. This is the dramatic scene where the final overtake takes place.
Or if you prefer a historical reference, there is Brutus. He first became one of Caesar’s favorite and most loyal senator.
And then he championed the palace intrigue that stabbed Caesar in the back, this time more literally, and plunged Rome into chaos:
Caesar is rumored to have said before dying “of all the people, you Brutus, my son”.
Brutus wasn’t Caesar’s son, but he took full advantage of Caesar’s sympathy, which made his ascension to power much easier.
That’s why leaders should always be watchful of reports who are “a little bit too much like them” and “a little bit too supportive”.
Some of them might be preparing the ground for their own reign. And of one thing, you can rest assured: as their former bosses, your head will be the first to roll.
Slipstreaming The Culture
Same as for slipstreaming the leader, power aligners can slipstream a culture.
They pretend to back the company or party value and then, once in charge and once powerful enough, they lead towards what they really wanted.
Power Aligning is Super Effective
This strategy works better than most people would think.
As Haslam notices in his seminal “The New Psychology of Leadership“, men who start off presenting themselves as dominant upstart leaders tend to fail.
Those who start off listening, watching and learning about the group tend to win (see BBC Prison Study as an example).
How to Beat Power Aligners
Never, ever attack a power aligner publicly.
And God forbid, don’t you even think of calling their game out.
The deck is stacked against you.
When you attack them frontally it’s as if you’re attacking your whole company.
The powers that be are on their side, the values they (pretend to) espouse are the company’s values and, never forget, bosses love having watchdogs who help them control the herd.
And don’t even think of taking them on the sideline and have an “eye to eye conversation”.
It’s too easy for them to deny everything.
Here is a funny example from Family Guy on what’s most likely to happen:
Power aligners will play dumb. They can’t do anything else or their whole game crumbles.
They must keep the pretense that they’re 100% genuine and their buy-in into the corporate missions and values is unwavering.
The result when you challenge them is always the same: they’ll look a great company fit, real management material.
And you’ll look like someone who should better find a new job.
For effective ways of tackling please check out Social Power, section on workplace power.
#7. The Shunners
“Oh, I didn’t see you standing there for the last 2h… “
The shunners form a clique to socially exclude the target of their political machinations.
When the target approaches one of them, the shunner is curt, detached or even ignores them (stonewalling).
The gaslighting effect starts when you ask why they’re cutting you off… And they’ll tell you that it’s not true at all (ie.: it’s all in your head).
Shunners are most often, albeit not exclusively, women.
It’s a form of silent social punishment, it communicates that “we’re a group, and you not part of us”.
The shunners usually gang up on people whom they perceive are a threat, but yet who are (still) weak enough to be victimized.
Is the new colleague a bit too beautiful, bright or ambitious? Then she’s not one of us.
Is the new recruit too good and ambitious? You’re not welcome here because you upset our little world of entrenched interests.
Those are the psychological drivers behind the shunning game.
In a way, shunning is a reactionary game of fear. Fear of change, fear of losing status and fear of having our egos upset by the results of the new incumbent.
Imagine a new colleague comes in, and they change our business for the better, or quickly launch into an upward career.
That would show us we’ve been doing it wrong for the whole time. Or that we’re stagnating in our progress.
People with high self-esteem and a growth mindset would use it as a wake-up call.
But that’s not the shunners of course, who would rather isolate the threat to their individual egos with the abusive strength of the group.
Office Power Play Example
Albeit it’s a silent political game, it’s not that difficult to recognize a shunning clique.
- In your presence, the shunners go overboard with insider jokes that you don’t get
- They laugh at each other’s jokes but not yours
- If you open up they look at each other as if to say “what the hell was that”
- They are warm to each other, but very distant wit you
All these behavior communicate that you don’t belong and they’ll be much happier if you left.
Shunning games can also happen when you’re absent, used to both strengthen the group and reinforce, once again, that they stand united against you.
Sarkozi plays a shunner game with Merkel against (absent) Berlusconi:
Sarkozy looks at Merkel, says nothing, smiles until she smiles back… It’s as if he was saying “Berlusconi is laughable, Merkel and I agree on that, he doesn’t belong with us”
How to Beat Shunners
Shunning games are hard to beat.
Now imagine Berlusconi had been there in the video above.
He’d know that Sarkozy is an enemy and he’s forming a collation with Merkel against him.
But if he were to escalate openly, he would look childish and argumentative.
As a silent type of aggression, the shunning game can easily be denied.
This is what a good shunner would have replied:
Shunner-Sarkozy: We? Ignoring you? Laughing at you? Where did you get that from.
We’re here to work for the good of our Union, and we’re happy if you join us with constructive input
See how an astute shunner would approach it?
Not only would they deny and make you look crazy, but they would make you look petty, unhelpful and selfish.
A better strategy then is the good old “divide and conquer”.
Work up the members of the groups who are least sold on office politicking until you befriend them and break the game.
“The Devil Wears Prada: has one example of a shunner dynamic that might be on the way of breaking:
The moment a shunner looks too spiteful and too into the shunning game compared to the other players is a sign that you’re on your way to winning
#8. The Vanity Player
“Am I not good?
Look at me, how good I am.
… Are you gonna tell me I’m good?”
Vanity players are all about attracting attention and praise.
They think they’re good, and they want others to respect them for how good they are.
Some people confuse Vanity Players with narcissists.
And don’t get me wrong, they might as well be narcissists.
But most often though, it’s a mix of:
Vanity Players are addicts and their drug of choice is emotional validation and what I call “ego candies”, which is anything that makes them feel emotionally good (recognition, small-time awards, consideration, etc.).
They’ll go to great lengths to get their fixes and when they don’t get them, they throw tantrums and create office drama.
This makes them very entertaining actors of corporate politics, with important consequences for you.
Office Power Play Example
Whenever you see anyone with little power making a big ruckus, you are in the presence of a vanity player.
Whenever you see anyone whom people don’t respect much demand for their “due respect”, you are in front of a vanity player.
And whenever you see anyone attracting far more attention than their actual worth, you are in front of a vanity player.
Fredo from The Godfather is a good example of a vanity player.
Fredo only apparently seeks power, but all he actually wants is some scraps of respect and recognition:
Their Office Power Strategy
Don’t get distracted by the Vanity Players decoys, self-aggrandizing, and entitlement: there is no real power here.
Vanity players make waves, but they’re surface waves that don’t move any boats and, at worst, just impedes action.
The real players instead are like deep currents that actually move stuff.
You must not waste time with Vanity Players.
Sure, they can be annoying with their self-righteous attitude, but you shouldn’t battle people who are beneath you and your aspirations.
If anything, you can use Vanity Players for your maneuvering because here’s the thing about them: they’re easy to persuade.
For example, you can to recruit them against a bad boss or against an overachiever.
#9. The Sociopath Player
“I so deserve the top spot that I shouldn’t even work for it“
Sociopaths follow the Pareto rule.
They focus 80% on office politics and 20% on actual work. Given how successful some of them are, we might even wonder what’s more important…
There is already much literature on this website on sociopaths and psychopaths, including:
And I can also highly recommend “How Companies Manipulate Employees“.
In a nutshell, though, sociopaths see the workplace as a big chess board and they have little to no empathy for people. That makes it easier for them to actually move people as if they were inanimate objects.
They consider themselves superior to everyone else and deserving of top management positions.
Many sociopaths can’t stick to long years of continuous work which might put them at a disadvantage.
However, many sociopaths have superficial charm, are smooth talkers and are evry good manipulators.
Office Power Play Example
Younger female sociopaths are some of the most dangerous specimens of corporate political players.
Simple, because male bosses are far (far) easier to bamboozle with charm and sexual innuendos.
And full-on sex is not even always needed, that’s how dumb some men are.
Elizabeth Holmes built a whole empire bamboozling investors, media and a who’s who board of directors which included former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger and defense secretary, star-general James Mattis.
General James Mattis is famous for his “macho quotes”, including:
James Mattis: When you men get home and face an anti-war protester (..) shake his hand. Then, wink at his girlfriend because she knows she’s dating a pussy
Turns out macho-man James Mattis got so manipulated by the pussy that he lent all his power and authority to support Elizabeth Holme’s own ambitions without getting anything in return.
As chronicled by Carreyrou in Bad Blood indeed Theranos’ board was powerless under Holme’s guidance.
That, my friends, is some next level sociopath manipulation at play.
How to Beat Sociopaths
You must match their political savvy while delivering superior results and making sure people know who’s delivering.
At parity of political dexterity, then your superior results can win the day.
But just to be sure, you should support the creation of some internal enemies for the sociopaths.
It can be a boss who micromanages them, an exec who sees through them or a higher-up who’s afraid of the sociopath ascension.
If you can combine all three, then you will win:
- Deliver superior results
- & make sure they’re properly attributed to you
- Play the political game equally well
- Pitch them against someone powerful
In case you’re in need for more, I have a case study up in Social Power.
Can Office Politics Ever Be Stopped?
Unluckily office environments partially follow the rules of “public good games“.
In public good games, if everyone contributes and nobody abuses the system, it’s possible for everyone to win.
On the other hand, public good environments are ripe for abuse. And that’s where the office politics fester.
Politickers are not playing for fair distribution or team victory. They are in to take as much as possible.
And the office, and life in general, largely makes it possible for them to do so.
I remain highly skeptical about any office being devoid of workplace politics.
Workplace politics are simply an extension of human nature.
We are designed, in good part, for the maximization of personal returns through social interation (Dawkins, 1976). And gossiping might be a direct offshoot of our nature of social animals (Wright, 1994).
It’s a fascinating topic for a social scientist, but let’s cut it to the chase here.
What’s the result?
The result is that there is no office without office politics.
And to win the professional game, you must learn the rules of workplace politics.
Limitation of This Article: Archetype Model
As per any archetype theoretical model based on archetypes, few people mold an archetype with 100% overlap and 100% of the times.
Most people will present a combination of traits.
But the opposite is also true: even people who do not easily fit into an archetype will, at times, resort to behaviors which are specific of one of the archetypes we analyzed.
Albeit imperfect, well-designed archetypes are still useful to better understand human nature and, in this case, to increase your corporate politics game.
This article gave you an overview of the archetypes of corporate politics players.
This is a teaser from Social Power.
The lesson in the course has 2 more archetypes of office politics players and is more heavily focused on power moves and solutions.