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Blog Business World interviews Franke James

Dear Office-Politics cover by Franke James, MFA.;

Wayne Hurlbert, founder of Blog Business World, a leading blog about current business books, interviewed Franke James, Office-Politics.com Founder about her award-winning game-book Dear Office Politics.

Also read Wayne Hurlbert’s Review of Dear Office-Politics.

The Interview

By Wayne Hurlbert

Speaker and author on office politics, the environment, and social change Franke James, was kind enough to take the time to answer a few questions about her fascinating and 2010 Axiom Award winning book Dear Office-Politics: the game everyone plays. The author describes how she employs a game within a book format, to tackle the most frequent and troubling issues that arise in office politics and their effects on organizations and their employees.

Thanks to Franke James for her very comprehensive and informative answers about her book on one of the most challenging of ethical dilemmas that face employees everywhere: that of office politics.

BBW/Wayne: What was the background to writing the book Dear Office Politics?

franke james 2009 Writing and publishing Dear Office Politics has been quite an adventure. It’s taken 7 years for it to come to fruition, and required collaboration with people from around the world — on a topic that is universally regarded as touchy.

Back in 2002, I read a news article about Dr. John Burton, a professor who was teaching Ethics at a business school. John talked about Ethics as a skill that requires practice. Just like weight lifters who gain strength and build muscle by regularly lifting heavy weights, John explained that people need to practice making ethical decisions. Wow! I loved that analogy. It made perfect sense to me. I contacted John, and he agreed to work with me to answer letters sent into OfficePolitics.com. The Ethics area was meant as a companion to our online game, however it quickly became the main attraction. It really was addressing a need.

Over the years, the site has attracted many more experts (business authors and executive coaches) who were willing to share their expertise. Dear Office Politics features seven of the Office-Politics Advisers (Erika Andersen, Rick Brandon, Jennifer Glueck Bezoza, John Burton, Timothy Johnson, Marty Seldman, and John Challenger) who have worked with me to answer hundreds of letters.

However, the game-book as you see it now almost didn’t get published. In 2008, I had a book contract from a major U.S. publisher and a $20,000 book advance. But the book I’d worked years to create was being changed from a colorful role-playing game into a standard, gray-text, “business” book. This suited the publisher just fine. But for me, it was the antithesis of what I’d dreamed of. I’d beta-tested a new type of training book that merged entertainment and education. It got people talking about touchy office politics issues and practicing ethical decision-making. That was the book I had a burning desire to publish.

I felt torn. So, I used the game questions to arrive at a solution. I stepped into the publisher’s shoes. I put it to the TV News test. I analyzed the power structure. And, I found a solution that was in everyone’s best interests. I canceled the contract and paid back the advance. One year later, I self-published and started selling Dear Office-Politics on Amazon.

Considering the journey, it’s especially satisfying that it just won a 2010 Axiom Business Book Award for HR training. And it makes me feel great to see how it’s helping people improve their political skills and their ability to make ethical decisions.

BBW/Wayne: You follow a letter to the Dear Office Politics expert, in the form of a game, as your format. Why did you choose that technique for sharing information?

Office-Politics is such a touchy issue. Nobody wants to discuss it. Almost everyone says smugly, “I don’t play office politics.” But office politics is all around us. You can’t duck it. That will only ensure you don’t see it coming when you get whacked in the head. Being politically savvy is a critical life skill and it can be a positive force if you approach it with integrity. It’s all about influencing people, selling your good ideas and getting into power so you can do the right thing.

So – why did I choose a game format? Because games allow people to wear a mask. Players can discuss touchy office politics issues openly without fear.

Each player gets to step into the role of “Office-Politics Adviser” and offer their advice on thorny issues. (Many people think they know what the other person should do to fix their problems – so this game is their chance to step up and give advice.) The game format provides a safe way to discuss difficult workplace issues and the opportunity to practice ethical decision-making and creative problem-solving. It also gives workers the opportunity to observe how their colleagues make ethical decisions — which can be very revealing and fascinating!

The game-book is structured into two parts. The first half of the book contains the Ethical Evaluation Grid and the Dilemmas – which are actual letters that have been sent in from workers around the world. The second half are the Answers provided by the advisers. However, players can come up with their own solutions to the Dilemmas. The advisers’ answers are offered as a guide to show how problems can be analyzed and suggestions given. They are not intended as “This is the one and only solution.”

There are a wide range of Dilemmas to choose from. My suggestion is to customize the game by pre-selecting the Dilemmas that are most relevant in your office.

BBW/Wayne: Many people discover too late that office politics exist in every office setting. How does your book prepare people so they can avoid the pitfalls of office politics?

Many people write into the site and say how disillusioned they are that they can’t seem to avoid office politics. And they’re right. Because it’s everywhere. Office-Politics Adviser Dr. Rick Brandon has a quote that always makes me laugh: “Even though some companies are less political than others, none have repealed the laws of human nature. Even in the Girl Scouts of America, we hear there are lots of politics. If there are no politics, check the people’s pulse in your company since they are probably dead!”

So the truth is we can’t duck office politics by pretending it doesn’t exist. Those who do will just miss the social signals – the early warning signs that something is afoot. And they’ll get hammered. Office politics is everywhere, from big businesses to small. It crosses all cultural boundaries, and even affects the self-employed – if that individual has to deal with clients and or suppliers.

My advice is to become politically skilled and learn to play the game with transparency and integrity. Dear Office-Politics helps people to do that. They are able to read the Dilemmas. And then practice coming up with ethical and workable solutions. The game rules include a four-part evaluation grid. Those four questions are the key to become politically skilled.

  • The TV News Test asks you to assess how your behavior would be seen by the outside world. (Imagine if Enron employees had seriously considered that.)
  • The Other Person’s Shoes: Many of the letters sent into the site demonstrate a reluctance to think about the other person. So the game asks players to put themselves in the other person’s shoes. Even if you don’t agree with the person in the slightest it will give you insight into how the other person will react and it may suggest compromises that will help to diffuse difficult situations. (Lawyers use this technique all the time to anticipate how the other side will defend themselves.)
  • Power Analysis: You need to understand the power structure — and realize what power you hold, so you can decide if you want to go into battle on an issue. It can also give you insight into who you need to win support from if you’re going to succeed with your initiative.
  • The Company’s Best Interests: We’re all inherently selfish. This question asks players to think of the company’s best interests. It doesn’t mean that their personal interests are no longer important – but asks players to expand their vision and also consider what is in their company’s best interests.

BBW/Wayne: Does a person have to be an avid reader of Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, and practice its advice to survive in office politics?

No. Dear Office-Politics is about playing the game with integrity and transparency.

BBW/Wayne: How can a person who is ethical, and prefers to avoid office politics and entanglements, benefit from your book?

To get maximum value out of the book, readers have to become active players. You have to jump in and actually play the game using the ethics quadrant. I know that stating views publicly will be scary for some people. But it takes the experience to a whole new level. It’s like the difference between passively watching TV, and actively getting up on stage and speaking your mind. For those who are nervous about playing the game with coworkers, try it at home with friends and family first.

BBW/Wayne: What causes some employees to put their personal interests first, even to the detriment of the organization as a whole?

I believe we’re all inherently selfish. Society teaches us that the smart guys look out for themselves first. But this selfishness is short-sighted and frankly, it’s bad advice. The best way for an individual to consistently win is to raise his or her sights and always keep the company’s best interests in mind. If the company wins, you’ll win too. But if the company loses, and you win – then you’ve lost. Your reputation and opportunity for advancement go out the window.

BBW/Wayne: How can your book help someone gain insight into how other co-workers are thinking, to avoid office politics in those relationships entirely?

It’s not often that we get to observe how another person thinks, and what steps they take in making decisions. Dear Office-Politics lets you do that. Each player gets the opportunity to step into the shoes of an Office-Politics Adviser and offer advice. The other players listen to that player’s reasoning and can gain valuable insight into how they make ethical decisions – and what factors are most important to them. It can be very revealing as to character and motivation.

And in answer to the second part of your question, “avoid office politics in those relationships entirely” – well, office politics will always be present. You can’t get rid of it, but you can learn to be aware of the unseen political forces, and hone your political skills to bring about good and just results, for yourself, the company, and society.

BBW/Wayne: How important is mutual respect between employees at the same or different levels of an organization to prevent office politics from dominating everyone’s workload?

Respect is key. Lack of appreciation and understanding for a coworker’s role are at the root of many office politics problems. It’s easy to dismiss another person’s concerns and to trash their opinion. That is why the Other Person’s Shoes game question can be so helpful. Feedback I’ve heard is that the question gave insight into challenges the other person was facing – and with better understanding, respect often follows.

BBW/Wayne: How can an employee receive proper credit for their own work without appearing to be showing up other co-workers?

There are two parts to my answer. The first is often a shock to people. They don’t want to hear this, but it’s the truth. Most companies own their employees’ ideas. It’s considered their intellectual property. So when you come up with an idea, remember that. You don’t own your idea, the company does.

If we think from the company’s point of view, we’ll recognize that it’s in the company’s best interests to get ideas circulating. They want ideas to cross-pollinate across the entire organization so that the idea will grow, be improved and – if it’s really good — take on a bigger life and make profits for the company. No company wants an employee to hoard ideas from other coworkers.

But it’s human nature to be afraid of letting our ideas go. We all want to get credit for our hard work. However the reality is that most ideas are not born perfect. If you trace back successful projects to their inception, you will find that most have been improved upon through input from other people. Growing ideas is an iterative process. The seed of a brilliant idea grows bigger as each person adds their own creative juice to it.

There’s a way to get credit and keep the company happy. This comes to the second part of my answer. At Office-Politics we advise people to leave their handprint on their work. This can be done in a variety of ways – here are four.

  • Generate discussion about the idea and actively look for ways to improve it. Essentially it means sharing your idea by talking about it, emailing it to others, documenting it in company memos – the more ways you can publicize your idea, the better your chances are of getting credit for it — and seeing it grow into something you’re proud of.
  • This may seem counter-intuitive but one of the best ways to leave your handprint is to acknowledge that others have contributed to it…. Be the one who steps up and acknowledges the contributions of others – in writing and verbally. Don’t hoard the glory – share it. Think of a Hollywood movie and the long list of rolling credits at the end. Many people share in winning an Oscar. It’s never about one person.
  • You will earn respect and gratitude from coworkers by acknowledging their contribution to the idea (and their brilliance).
  • Be identified as the bright “go-to” person for new ideas. Become known as a clever, innovative thinker who generates new ideas — and helps others grow and improve their ideas. You will be a far more valuable employee that way, and someone that others will want on their team.

BBW/Wayne: Is there a real “winner” in office politics, or is the end result far different from that simplistic assessment?

You’re right. Being declared the winner of Dear Office-Politics is not really what it’s about. (Although the game structure allows a winner to be declared, you can also play the game without scoring.) The real winners are the people who use the game-book to improve their political skills. Here are the benefits that I see from playing the game:

Team Building: Dear Office-Politics builds trust through better understanding.

Enhancing Communication: Dear Office-Politics gets people telling stories.

Exercises Ethical Muscles: Dear Office-Politics lets people exercise their ethical muscles by role-playing ethical decisions.

Appreciating Roles: Dear Office-Politics gets people talking about roles and responsibilities.

Raise Awareness: Dear Office-Politics raises awareness of the other person’s feelings.

Understanding Culture and Fit: Dear Office-Politics gets people thinking about culture and the importance of fitting in.

BBW/Wayne: What is the single most common question you receive about office politics in general?

It’s hard to say pinpoint one question. Having ideas stolen is a common one. And so is gossip. On the site, the letters are divided by category. They are:

# Backstabbers & Snakes
# Betrayals & Whistle-blowing
# Brownnosers & Sycophants
# Bullies and Bad Bosses
# Climbing the Ladder
# Cliques
# Coworkers driving me Crazy
# Goodbye! Quitting. Being Fired
# Jealousy, Envy and Lust
# Nepotism & family matters
# Office-Princesses, Boss’ Pet and Halos
# Power Plays
# Rumors, Gossip and Buzz
# Stealing Credit
# Toxic Workplaces

BBW/Wayne: What is next for Franke James?

Good question! I think I see a sequel! Seriously, I’m delighted that Dear Office-Politics has been so well received and won an Axiom Business Book Award. Trainers have been using the game (in earlier variations) in workshops and at events since 2005. My next project is to develop Dear Office-Politics into a customizable workshop package that can be used by HR trainers. So, any HR trainers who are interested in taking part can contact me at ceo@officepolitics.com

Read Wayne Hurlbert’s Review of Dear Office-Politics.

Reprinted with permission of Blog Business World