Resisting the Pull of Office Politics

As Hillary Clinton enters President-elect Obama's Cabinet, the issue of palace intrigue arises
Clinton's intentions will be good, but can her staff fight the urge to settle scores? Tannen Maury/EPA/Corbis

What do you think about Barack Obama's appointment of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State? —Charles Pashley, Philadelphia

We think, on the merits, Hillary Clinton is a terrific appointment. But putting merit aside for a moment, Senator Clinton's appointment is something else. It's a spark that will surely ignite humankind's oldest and most unproductive form of organizational dysfunction: palace intrigue. That is, unless the new President makes it painfully clear—via public shamings—that he will not tolerate the gossiping, maneuvering, tea-leaf-reading, backstabbing, and general office politicking that so many people hold so dear.

That's right—lots of people love palace intrigue, despite widespread claims to the opposite. And the more "intellectual" they are, the more they seem to indulge, with cerebral media industry types being perhaps the worst offenders. Not to narrow the field! Cliques pop up, plotting occurs, and information bartering is transacted in every sort of setting: public, private, large, and small.

The Obama White House will likely be no exception. Indeed, with the installation of the new Secretary of State, it's unavoidable, as she comes with a preexisting band of devoted partisans, the so-called Clintonistas. Sure, Secretary Clinton will have the best of intentions, and her staff will swear allegiance to the new boss, but with old scores to settle and reputations to revive, the issues of the day won't be the only thing on their minds. More palace intrigue is sure to bubble up between Timothy Geithner's crew of supporters in the Treasury Dept. and Larry Summers' loyalists on the National Economic Counsel, with both sides jockeying for bragging rights about access to the President, not to mention the warm glow of positive public opinion.

Closer to the Top, the Meaner It Gets

Similarly, in business, palace intrigue is about power—who has it, who's gaining it, and which players will land on the right side of fence. Thus, employees at every level—though the politicking gets meaner and more intense toward the top—tend to align themselves with one "team" or another. They huddle in each other's offices, selectively sharing intelligence about their peers' machinations, real and imagined. They forward incriminating e-mails from perceived enemies. They support allies at meetings and (subtly) try to undermine "the others." At its best, palace intrigue is petty. At its worst, it can be war.

It's always dumb. Not just because it's unproductive but because it ultimately hurts more careers than it helps. Some ruthless office politickers make it to the top. In the long run, though, those who relentlessly refuse to play the game win the organization's trust and a reputation for integrity. They're known to hold no grudges and harbor no hidden agendas.

That's why when you start at a new organization you have to fight the forces trying to draw you into the fray. You'll have to fight hard, too—as those already enmeshed will assiduously court you with insider insights and vague promises of help. Don't fall for it. Every participant in palace intrigue falls into one of two categories. They're either boss haters, bitter or resentful and bent on subterfuge. Or boss wannabes, who see you as a rung on their ladder. And remember, every palace intriguer may also be a double agent, ready to trade your opinions to get information in return.

Call 'em Out, Ship 'em Out

So muster your strength. We have a friend who keeps a piece of paper in his top drawer that says, "I love everyone," and refers to it every time he feels the lure of internecine battles. Another technique is to steer clear of the most embroiled players, or at least cut short conversations that smack of scheming.

The task for managers takes guts, too. If you want to lessen the palace intrigue in your organization, you need to do what we've suggested for the President-elect, which is move out those who waste their time with it. Then explain why they left to everyone. Don't say they left "for personal reasons" or "to spend more time with the family." Say: "They cared more about themselves than the company's success."

And in politics, as in business, that's no way to win.

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