Power Players

Originally published 10/17/10

If you aren't an Avoider or a Neutral, then you actively use the political environment to your advantage. Then you're a Power Player.

Power Players come in two broad categories -- Street Fighters and Maneuverers. They are very different in their approach, but both essentially do the same thing -- try to change the perceptions about individuals other than themselves. The difference is how they go about doing this -- a Street Fighter is overt, while a Maneuverer is covert.

Maneuverers are more numerous than Street Fighters for reasons I'll describe momentarily. To be a successful maneuverer, one must be keenly aware of the existing power structure, and be able to see how that structure can be manipulated to advantage. The work of a maneuverer is subtle. In many cases, the intended target is not aware they are subject to a political play. In others, they are aware, but aren't sure which maneuverer might be behind it. In almost all cases, the target is unable to do much of anything about it.

A maneuverer is a little like a stock broker -- market goes up, I win; market goes down, I win. They maneuver their targets into a position where they are faced with a bad choice or a worse one. Sometimes the objective is to directly help the maneuverer -- as in scapegoating, for example. If the maneuverer successfully identifies someone to take the blame for a mistake, then the blame doesn't fall to them. Sometimes the objective indirectly benefits the maneuverer -- the removal or discrediting of a competitor or opponent, for example.

I doubt there's any data supporting it, but I will assert that the higher level positions in most corporations are heavily populated with maneuverers. This is why some of the wildest political battles occur at this level. We can argue as to which is cause, and which is effect, but I believe maneuverer skills definitely help executives ascend the corporate ladder. At a minimum, they help protect them while on the way.

The primary reason I think there are more maneuverers than street fighters is, I believe, because it is lower risk. If your target doesn't know who is behind the political play, it's hard to expose them or fight back. Even if the target does grasp what's going on, its often impossible to do anything about it. Some of this is because of other maneuverer's admiration for a game really well played. I've seen this a couple of times behind closed doors where the entire scenario is well understood by the guys at the top, and they tacitly approve of the maneuverer's skills, and blame the hapless target for being so stupid.

Street fighters are rare breed, and I don't think they are necessarily present in all organizations. A street fighter openly identifies opponents and goes after them. The best example of a street fighter in my career successfully removed at least one competitor I knew of, and his boss tolerated it while he took aim at several others. It was only when this street fighter went after the boss himself, that he over-reached and was fired.

This is the primary reason street fighters are so rare -- they make a lot of enemies, and often times self-destruct. And I don't know of any large organization headed by a street fighter. I suspect the incongruity between the demeanor expected by boards and shareholders, and the street fighter's overt tactics, make it difficult for them to reach the corner office.

Just like other distinctions I've made while musing on this subject, I'm talking about the Power Players as if they had a bilateral choice -- maneuverer or street fighter. In reality, some maneuverers occasionally engage in street fighter tactics. Street Fighters are capable of maneuvering as well. There is every grade in between the two extremes.

Next I will start discussing some of the specific tactics used by Neutrals and Power Players (if you're an avoider you, by definition, don't use political tactics). Doing so will help further distill the differences in approach, and how the various roles shape the political environment of the corporation.