Book Review: Office Politics: How to Thrive in a World of Lying, Backstabbing and Dirty Tricks by Oliver James

Oliver James’ book “Office Politics: How to Thrive in a World of Lying, Backstabbing and Dirty Tricks” asks the question: Does one really need to be a psychopathic, manipulative, soulless escapee from a lunatic asylum to make it in the world of business? And then he goes on to answer that question.

James is a trained and practicing clinical child psychologist and bestselling author of the books, Afflueza and “Britain on the Couch.” He brings his psychological know-how to the world of business and office politics and presents the reader with a social scientists’ view of the 21st century work environment.

James’ methods are by this time well-known to anyone that has read any one of his other books. That is to say, James looks into his subject world like the clinical psychologist. He then tries to explain his theories about this observed environment and also attempts to give his readers a deeper understanding of that world.

In “Office Politics” the basic concept is that more and more of us work in an intricate white-collar atmosphere where success may depend on office politics, rather than any particular set of skills. Easily measurable goals are hard to find in this kind of work place. In the world were Employee X produces twice as many widgets as Employee Y, the rewards are given out easily: more to X, less to Y. But the office where fault is spread around, acclaim taken away, and bonuses and promotions depend more on being liked by the bosses than doing your job well; then politics must be played.

In fact, James has found a “dark triad” of traits that make for successful office politicians: no conscience (psychopaths), manipulation of fellow employees (Machiavellians) and evil self-lovers (narcissists). Someone having a combination of these traits is called a “triadic” person. And according to James these “triadic” types are likely successful business people.

Much of the book is devoted to advice about how to act like a “triadic” type with really being one, or being too obvious in what is going on. Unfortunately, the advice is also the least interesting part of the book. The most interesting is when James looks at the current work reward and evaluation structures which actually encourage the worst kinds of politicking: competitive bonus plans and 360 assessments (a scheme where subordinates, peers and supervisors all get to weigh-in on an employee’s evaluations) are examined not in economic but in psychological terms.

This book is a good read for anyone working in an office, or anyone having been burnt by workplace politics. However, this is not a book to be taken too seriously when dealing with the 21st century business environment.


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