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Oliver James: Office Politics (Vermilion)

Every morning there is an awful pause as the 21st-century office worker comes to the end of the second verse of the company song.

This is caused, in part, because the third verse has been the victim of budget cuts and, secondly, because the assembled drones suddenly and communally contemplate the mystery of why they are at the bottom of the office food chain and wonder how they have been surpassed by lesser talents.

The answer, according to clinical psychologist Oliver James, is that the upper reaches of the office jungle are inordinately populated by psychopaths, devotees of Machiavellianism and narcissists. Some are all three. James is almost forensic in his descriptions of these monsters and they are instantly recognisable with some of their traits carrying an echo that resonates uncomfortably close to home. The victims of awful bosses sometimes have similar traits to their abusers, though at a less heightened level.

The author's case studies are chilling, regularly revelatory in detailing the drives that cause behaviour that impacts severely on colleagues. The good news is that "most toxic people do not rise" to the very top "because they are disliked and frequently not very good at their job". The bad news is that some do "with lamentable consequences for their colleagues".

So how does a drone deal with the awful boss? The answer is simple when dealing with the psychopath. The only healthy strategy is one of complete avoidance, which might be difficult given their prevalence. James states there are 600,000 psychopaths in Britain and they are over-represented in top-level management. This makes the matter of avoidance somewhat tricky but there are ways to deal with those tainted with the teachings of Machiavelli or immersed in the self-absorption of narcissism.

And this is where James's conclusions, backed by noted research, are depressing. Firstly, no research has found a fail-safe method for dealing with an awful boss. Secondly, research shows the methods that work in some instances are hardly life-enhancing.

Here are James's broad principles for a healthier office existence for the downtrodden employee: the importance of acting, astuteness, ingratiation, go-getting, virtuosity and dirty tricks. There is more than an element of deception in some of the above. Indeed, James states bluntly: "To some degree all of us have to put our interests before others and must engage in some deceit."

He also raises the spectre of "white lies". In my experience, these can be defined thus: "white lies" are what I tell and "lies" are what other people tell.

James comes perilously close to advocating behaviour worthy of the toxic boss and he is smart enough to realise that danger, stating that his purpose is to improve the reader's "office political skills". However, this draws the reader into uncomfortable areas. The geography of ingratiation has been well explored by most and and almost everyone would agree that "go getting", another of the author's principles, is necessary to drive to the top or to inoculate one against the depredations of the most predatory boss.

The use of deceit, though, is toxic. James's advice on the "importance of acting" is a viable psychological device but it has the capacity to fool the employee even as he/she is deceiving the boss. This is never as stark as when James writes of the "appearance of sincerity" as one of his key skills. This reminds one of that peerless philosopher, the late Bob Monkhouse, who once said the key to success in showbusiness was in adopting the maxim from Jean Giraudoux, the dramatist and diplomat, who held that sincerity was essential. "If you can fake that, then you have it made," he added.

James and Monkhouse, an unlikely double act, have of course stated an unpleasant truth, but the dangers of its use by the employee on their emotional health are unexplored. Hunters for a stable psychological life would not tarry long in their quest for enlightenment in the world of showbusiness.

But the most dark of all the observations of the author is his choice of a subtitle: "How to thrive in a world of lying, backstabbing and dirty tricks." The sad truth is that this description of office politics will resonate with many.

Office Politics

Oliver James, Vermilion, £20

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Business

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