How to Avoid Political Suicide at Work
A new book on gaining influence at work offers a crash course in how to manage a bad boss, outfox your enemies, and impress the powerful. Plus, take our quiz to test your political savvy.
By Anne Fisher, FORTUNE senior writer

I've always liked what former President Dwight D. Eisenhower said when someone asked for his definition of politics. "It's the art of knowing how to get people to do what you want them to do," he said, "and make them believe they thought of it themselves." That kind of influence is what eventually leads to real power, but how many of us know how to achieve it? For anyone interested in learning, here's a tip: Get hold of a copy of Secrets to Winning Office Politics: How to Achieve Your Goals and Increase Your Influence at Work (St. Martin's Press, $13.95). An organizational psychologist and head of an Atlanta executive coaching firm called Executive Counselors (, author Marie McIntyre, Ph.D., has counseled high-fliers at Home Depot, Prudential, Panasonic, BellSouth, the Federal Reserve, and elsewhere. McIntyre says that if you're not able to negotiate certain situations at office, you may find yourself looking for a new job. Here are some excerpts from our recent conversation:

Q. What is the most common political mistake people make in the workplace?
A. The most widespread problem I see is what happens when someone gets a new boss. It's the most hazardous point in a career, because then all bets are off. What you really need to do is make an effort to study his or her expectations and figure out how these are different from what your old boss wanted from you. It can be a hard adjustment, but you rarely have a choice. If the new boss is an idiot, learn how to work for an idiot. Of course, with someone really toxic, you need to make some decisions about how long you're going to stay, and start taking steps to get out.

Q. Is it ever realistic to expect to change a bad boss?
A. Not really, but there are things you can do to manage the relationship. I often ask people, "How often do you tell your boss something you appreciate about him or her?" There's nothing wrong with expressing a little appreciation now and then, because we certainly expect to get it from them! And, as a practical matter, if you say something positive now and then, it makes problems easier to discuss when they arise, because your boss knows you aren't just focusing on the negative all the time. I also believe that, if everyone's intentions are positive, almost any problem can be worked out. But I wrote the book because about 95% of people in companies do have positive intentions -- they just don't know how to avoid shooting themselves in the foot.

Q. Is that why you included the checklist in the book that tells people how to figure out whether they are unwittingly committing political suicide?
A. Oh, yes. If you're feeling angry, anxious, or resentful about changes at work, and letting those feelings show, that is a danger sign. Another one is thinking only of your own goals, without regard for anyone else's. And of course, if a manager or human resources person has told you that you need to make some changes, it's time to think seriously about how you are coming across to your colleagues, and whether you're about to self-destruct.

Q. One part of book that fascinates me is the discussion on various kinds of political enemies and how to handle them. The type you describe as "vengeful adversaries" sound like the most treacherous.
A. They can be, especially since you often don't know what you did "wrong" to make them want to get back at you. If the person is rational, you can have a constructive conversation about what's going on between you. But if not, you need to start working on damage control, as I describe in the book, and the sooner the better. The first step is to explain to your boss, without whining and without trashing your adversary in any way, what the problem is and how you've tried to discuss it with the person who has been undermining you. That will at least put any further attacks from this person in a different light.

Q. Your advice in the book on how to approach powerful higher-ups is great. Want to sum it up in a few tips?
A. Sure. For one thing, you have to talk fast, because senior executives are busy people with tight schedules, and they tend to be pretty good at absorbing information quickly without a lot of explanation. Then, don't be surprised if the directions they give you are only about half clear. Pressing for specifics will only make them think you aren't too bright. Your best bet is developing a solid relationship with that executive's administrative assistant, who has already learned how to read the boss's mind. If you're going to work well with a very powerful person, you need to set aside your ego. Senior executives are paid lavish salaries, given expensive perks, and surrounded by fawning underlings. So their egos are usually huge, leaving no room for yours. If you bring your own ego into the relationship, you'll soon find yourself in a power struggle -- and guess who's likely to lose?


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