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Thursday, December 03, 2015

Better to be bad at office politics

I think we underestimate the important role in society played by people who are bad at office politics.

If you are good at office politics, you are likely to end up in a position beyond your competence (the Peter Principle). This is less likely to happen if you don't have the political skills to lobby for a better position.  This means you are more likely to be qualified, maybe a bit overqualified, for your position.  Obviously, having competent people in jobs is better than having incompetent people in jobs.

But that's societal outcomes. Even for personal outcomes, there are advantages to being bad at office politics.  I spent the last 24 years of my career working at IRI, a company which started doing badly about 1994 and went through continual rounds of layoffs.  Then we were sold to an entepreneur who owned an Indian outsourcing firm, and reduced the staff from about 4400 to about 1500 over about four years -- making the company profitable again, and himself even more wealthy.

So, how did I survive all these waves of cuts?  I like to think it's because I was competent, but there was a lot of sheer luck involved.  In addition, I usually had jobs requiring technical skills, and jobs which nobody else wanted. Working on projection systems, for example. If they worked well, they were forgotten and nobody noticed.  When they didn't work quite well enough, there was heck to pay. So very little praise and a lot of downside.

If I'd had better political skills, I would have used my statistical skills to work on client-facing analytics.  This would have paid better, but those jobs also turn out to be more of a revolving door.  This isn't bad -- they pay well at our competitors as well -- but does mean moving around a lot.