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July 23, 2011

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Home » Opinion » Book review

Beware of flattery as tool in game of office politics

MY father used to tell me how much he admired the American way of competition, that is, one gets ahead by doing well and doing good.

In China, my father would say, too many people get ahead by spreading gossip about others and putting them down, rather than doing well and doing good themselves.

A 2010 best seller by Jeffrey Pfeffer suggests my father had somehow fallen into the trap of believing the grass is always greener in a neighbor's garden.

The book "Power: Why Some People Have It - and Others Don't," is powerful proof that office politics is no less endemic to American culture. "One of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking that good performance - job accomplishments - is sufficient to acquire power and avoid organizational conflicts," writes Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University.

Performance doesn't lead to power, he says; if it did, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon might today be running Citigroup, Arthur Blank and Bernard Marcus might never have started Home Depot, and Steve Jobs might have held on to Apple in the 1980s. Each of these leaders, while talented and capable, fell victim to power plays in corporate politics.

Pfeffer's finding surely doesn't apply to all or most Americans - I know too many Americans who shun overweening politicians and crafty bureaucrats and remain honest and humble - but he does open a window into a part of American culture that my father and million others like him never knew.

In many ways, Pfeffer's book offers a candid and fair look at the hard reality in American office politics. For example, he says, life is unfair and the world will not hand you what you deserve, so seek power on your own.

But he goes too far in saying: "Seek power as if your life depends on it. Because it does." He cites social scientists who call power a "fundamental human drive."

This appears to contradict his other statement that, when it's time to go after one reaches the pinnacle of power, he should "leave gracefully."

If one's life depends on power, how could he leave and live gracefully when power is gone?

And if power is related to living a longer and healthier life, as Pfeffer says, won't retirement be a setback?

The apparent contradiction stems from Pfeffer's failure to distinguish the power of a manager or leader from the power of an individual human being. No one has the power to manage and lead forever, but everyone can retain spiritual power throughout life.

The book "Power" is a textbook on how to seek office power through calculated behavior, even flattery; it hardly promotes moral power like honesty and humility.

Flattery, Pfeffer tells us, creates a sense of "reciprocity" (the need to return the flattery) in the person you're complimenting - and that gives you power.

I looked the dictionary for the exact meaning of "flatter" and found that it specifically means "excessive or insincere praise."

Some bosses, because of their egos, cannot tell flattery from sincere respect and genuine compliments, and that's why flattery sometimes works. But flattery fails before a wise boss.

A typical flatterer bows only before his boss but may well bully others, and when he becomes the boss, he bows to no one, not even to his former boss. A humble employee, by contrast, respects his boss and colleagues all his life.

This reminds me of our stray neighborhood cats, particularly one who ingratiates herself with humans, purring and rubbing against our legs as we put out food for them all. She then gobbles the lion's share, hissing and batting away the other cats. Her flattery worked a while, but now we're wise to her.

Pfeffer admits that one's exalted position will create pretenders to one's throne and threats to one's livelihood. A boss thus has to distinguish between who is sincere and who wants the top job.

Now that he has magnified the magic power of flattery, he really cannot teach us how to tell flattery from sincerity. However, flattery is not that difficult to discern. If someone dares not look you in the eye when he says something nice about you, he cannot be sincere.

My father, a veteran doctor and hospital president, more than 20 years ago handpicked a successor whose eyes always darted sideways. It did not take long before my father knew he was wrong.


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