On Getting to the Top

by F.

Ah, corporate America. The rules by which it operates are so simple, so easy to grasp, so well-known that a fairly intelligent chimp could become a General Manager. The latest evidence: this WSJ piece on how to kiss ass and otherwise self-promote:

Copy the boss liberally, for example, and email only late in the evening to suggest you haven’t left work yet, he says. During meetings, ask questions after your boss’s presentation that reinforce the stated position, such as “Wouldn’t you agree that … ?” And always pose questions at the end of a colleague’s argument that suggest he’s somewhat daft: “You’re saying what exactly?”

Here’s a really useful one:

Speak first, and often, in meetings, says Greg Milano, a sales and marketing veteran of 22 years, and act like the boss you aren’t — yet. One colleague he remembers would often distribute minutes of meetings that weren’t his, make the first toasts at parties he didn’t host and grill people with questions only he felt he was entitled to ask. “It became such an annoyance that people started to refer to that behavior by his name,” says Mr. Milano.


Another common tactic insurance executive Ken Stewart has observed is to go on the attack. “Don’t raise the bridge, lower the water,” he says. He went so far as to transfer out of one dysfunctional department because meetings proved to be a crowded field of contenders variously undermining each other and swooning at the sound of their own voices.

Scott Stafford, a former legislative assistant, had a colleague who engaged in dirty tricks. He would steal informational faxes, memos and mail in an attempt to demonstrate publicly his mastery of everyone else’s issues. “There’s probably a plus for the campaign that goes negative,” says Mr. Stafford. “It works.”

Oh, and don’t be modest. It doesn’t work:

Robert Cialdini, professor of psychology at Arizona State University, explains that two of the main dimensions on which people are judged are likeability and competence. Modesty about workplace abilities works only when the audience already knows someone’s credentials, which co-workers likely do. But modesty can backfire with anyone — especially the boss — who doesn’t know. “If the audience doesn’t know your level of credentials and you under-represent them, they believe you,” he says.

On the other hand, Prof. Cialdini’s research shows that self-aggrandizers bug colleagues more than superiors because likeability may make you popular, but it isn’t the main criterion of management. “The manager is looking for evidence of competence,” he says.

What is frightening is that I’ve seen many of these tactics first hand. And they do work. Perhaps more frightening is that I’ve used many of them myself.