Which political animal are you? The four political animals that roam our offices

There are four political animals in the workplace – three of which are either Machiavellian, suicidal or plain right short-sighted. The fourth is the political animal that gets ahead, and gets ahead ethically – who doesn’t hear the words ‘office politics’ and squirm, but sees it as a fact of office life and works to engage and influence stakeholders in an ethical way and that takes account of both the organisation’s and his/her career goals.

The four political animals & their approaches to office politics

Let’s look at these four animals in more detail to see which one you are…

At work, we have two goals: our organisation’s goals and our own personal goals. The way in which our behaviour affects these two goals will determine if your behaviour is going to help your career or hold it back, and determines which type of the four political animals you are being at any given time. 

(This 2×2 is an adaptation of a model designed by Marie McIntyre from her excellent book: The Secrets to Winning at Office Politics.)  

The Winner (Elephant) 

Let’s say your behaviour in a certain meeting is helping your personal goals, which might be to build your reputation as an expert, and your behaviour is helping your organisation’s goals too, then in this scenario, you’re playing the role of the Winner. And the political animal you’re playing is the Elephant — an animal that scientists have shown to have self awareness and awareness of other herd members — it has its own welfare and that of the herd in its mind when making decisions. 

The Martyr (The Exploding Ant) 

The next role is that of the Martyr, the heroic altruist — if you deliver sterling performances year after year but you don’t achieve your own personal goals, you’re being a Martyr.  Now, the animal I’ve used here is an extraordinary species, the Co-lo-bop-is ex-plo-dens. As the name suggests, this ant, which is found in Asia, it explodes when an intruder attacks the nest — he performs a kamikaze sacrifice, which shoots sticky, toxic fluid over the attacker. These ants, these Martyrs, put the organisation’s goals above their own. In my coaching career, I’ve come across a lot of exploding ants who sit in middle manager roles and who are workaholics. They’re addicted to pleasing others. By being told how caring, nice and loyal they are, they get a shot of personal gratitude and a fleeting feeling of self worth. And then they’re at it again, working their socks off for others until they given another adrenaline shot, another pat on the back but nothing more for their selfless acts. It’s an exhausting addiction.

Because they don’t have the self esteem or self compassion to put their own needs on a par with others, they allow themselves to be ignored for promotions, for bonuses, and for the most interesting projects. All the exploding ants I’ve coached had two values in common: kindness and fairness — only they forget this when it comes to being kind and fair to themselves. The problem is these martyrs end up feeling unappreciated, and they’re left feeling grey, exhausted, and unfulfilled.

The Idiot (The Turkey) 

The next role is that of the office idiot. His personal and business goals hurt himself and the organisation. He might be passive aggressive or outright aggressive, either way it’s self destructive, and it often ends up damaging the organisation’s reputation, or team morale, or causing him to be put into a holding pen ready for sacking. I call him the Turkey — an animal not renowned for its intellect or common sense.  

The Dark Triad (The Shark) 

These are people with the personality traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy — they’re named under this Dark Triad umbrella term because psychologists have shown that if someone has one of the three traits, it’s likely they have the other two. Donald Trump is a good example. These are your Sharks. I’ve not coached one of these yet because these kind of people don’t believe they need self development. But I have seen them at work during my career in publishing and seen the trail of trampled individuals, lost revenue, and resentment they create. Which begs the question, why are they tolerated? Well, often they’re senior people in organisations. In fact, 21% of CEOs have psychopathic tendencies — this figure is the same for the UK’s prison population. (And bear in mind that only 1% of people in the UK are subclinical psychopaths.) They can deliver on targets and goals, so they can appear to be elephants, but their motives are alway self-serving.    

How you play office politics can vary

I’ve described four types of political animal and how they play office politics. But you yourself can morph into any of these political animals. You may well be an Elephant — but then you allow yourself to be drawn into a tit-for-tit conflict, which others’ notice, and which loses a client — making you a Turkey. So depending on what your behaviour is accomplishing — conscious or unconscious — will determine whereabouts in this box you will be standing.

By keeping these political animals at the front of your mind, you can step back when you need to make a decision about how to interact with others and play office politics, and think: “that’s marking me down as a Turkey”. Or, let’s say you see yourself being a Martyr, an exploding ant, then you can step back and think to yourself: I need to think about my career here, and about my family and my needs. Often this particular animal has some deep rooted limiting beliefs that stop them from engaging in office politics – they see office politics as a dirty word. And in my course, How to Engage & Influence Stakeholders through Ethical Office Politics, there’s a separate online video module that seeks to address limiting beliefs people have about office politics, or take a look at my recent blog about why so many middle managers ignore office politics and fail to progress

Office politics is present in every organisation – so get get trained up and develop your career

Office politics is present in every organisation and developing good political skill is vital. But like any other skill, office politics requires know-how and practice, and if you’re serious about getting ahead, you need to develop your political nous. In my online course, How to Engage & Influence Stakeholders through Ethical Office Politics there are 17 modules, including how to network effectively, how to build trust, how to deal with bullies, how to counter Machiavellian tactics used by others, as well as several case studies showing what to do and what not to.

Best regards

Peter Willis, tutor and co-founder, unchainyourbrain.org


The above 2×2 is an adaptation of a model designed by Marie McIntyre from her excellent book: The Secrets to Winning at Office Politics

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