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Surviving the Snakepit

Jane Doyle

Christians are called to be as 'wise as serpents and innocent as doves' - but what exactly does that mean in the often toxic political arena of the modern workplace? JANE DOYLE shares some hard-earned lessons.


Two years ago, my employers gave me an ultimatum. Either I applied for voluntary severance with a relatively attractive cash incentive, or I faced compulsory redundancy. Behind the scenes, I was later shocked to discover, no fewer than eleven individuals had worked towards getting rid of me. It was a hellish time, stressful and humiliating and ultimately acrimonious, yet I knew I was being treated unjustly. I am in my 50s, with broad life experience in various contexts both at home and abroad. I am intelligent and personable, vivacious and popular. I have held my own and earned respect in a multitude of contexts. As the 18-month process ground towards to its tortuous finale it was clear I could have gone to tribunal and won a case of unfair dismissal, and potentially one of sex discrimination and/or victimisation. But for the sake of my sanity, and with the agreement of my lawyer, I took the money and jumped ship.

Since then, I've spent a lot of time trying to learn from what happened. I hope I've identified and acknowledged my own part in this misery as well as the role played by my colleagues. But the biggest eye opener has been the extent to which my Christian values were a major, albeit subtle influence. For example, one core value that I hold dear is that of honesty. My yes was yes, my no, no, and I fully expected others to recognise and respect that. By contrast, many of my colleagues never said 'no' to the boss, always 'yes'. Yet most of the time that 'yes' became a 'no' behind the scenes as people contrived to change situations, manipulate opinions, arrange commitments and lobby in private for preferable alternatives. One in particular gave every impression of working hard by attending every meeting he could, being highly visible in public, but doing virtually nothing behind the scenes. That work was picked up by those of us less adept at playing the political game, and a vicious circle began whereby we were so overburdened we found it hard to be seen in public at all and hence gained the reputation of being work shy. Over time, I now see, my way of operating clashed with that of my managers to the point of intolerability. I was ripe for ejection. This was a shocking revelation, and made me wonder how many other Christians find themselves at a disadvantage in the savvy game-playing domain of workplace politics. And above all, what can we do differently, without sacrificing our integrity?

One of the most helpful clues I received was an article entitled 'Owl, Fox, Donkey or Sheep', which began: 'Political skill is the elusive and increasingly demanded ingredient of success and survival in organisational life'. The authors, Simon Baddeley and Kim James1, propose four types of political behaviour which can be plotted along two axes. The vertical axis has at its top 'politically aware' and at its bottom 'politically unaware', while the poles of the horizontal axis are 'psychological game playing' and 'acting with integrity'. The behaviour of each quadrant was likened to an animal: fox, donkey, owl and sheep. See if you recognise any of them.2

Politically aware/prone to psychological game playing - interested in power and in associating with the locus of power. Aggressive but well-masked, charming veneer - simulates feelings, rather than displaying spontaneously. Checks gossip/rumour; is aware of others' viewpoints. Manipulates situations so as to appear never to make mistakes. Basically insecure, but well defended. Can recognise and exploit weaknesses in allies and opponents, and likes games involving winners and losers.
Says things like: 'Leave it to me. I'll have a word with him. He's terribly out of touch'; 'I think it would be unwise for me to take this one'.

Politically unaware/prone to psychological game-playing - Unprincipled and unskilled interpersonally. Hates to be ignored, likes to associate with authority. Doesn't recognise 'direction' - plays psychological games but doesn't read those of others. Emotionally illiterate and concerned with own feelings rather than others'. Predisposed to projection, attribution and paranoia. Doesn't listen to others, sees things as 'either/or'. Not tuned into grapevine, blocked antennae.
Says things like: 'You know me', 'With all due respect', 'Well, we all know how he got his job, don't we'.

Politically aware/acting with integrity - Interested in direction in association with power and purpose. Can cope with being disliked; good interpersonal skills. Personal values/ethics; thinks before speaking; assertive but tactful, emotionally literate, plans action, checks gossip/rumour. Excellent listener; is aware of others' viewpoints. Uses coalitions, knows how the formal processes work. Non-defensive, learns from mistakes, reflects on events, shares information, gets support. Likes win-win situations. Sense of loyalty and capacity for friendship.
Says things like: 'How are we going to sort this out?' 'Let me make sure I understand what you're asking for'.

Politically unaware/acting with integrity - Tends to rely on authority, doesn't appreciate political purpose. Sticks to ethical, organisational and professional rules
Doesn't network, doesn't know how to get support. Listens but doesn't hear. Understands content but not process of procedures. Exaggerated respect for the rational/literal. Sees things as either/or. Wouldn't know a double message if hit between the eyes by it. Believes you are powerful if you are right. Shares information. Sense of loyalty and capacity for friendship.
Says things like: 'Could we get on with the main task of this meeting?' 'Well, in strictly hierarchical terms I think it's X's decision'.

It all hit home. I had behaved very much as a sheep, and as I came to experience, sheep tend to be either fleeced or slaughtered. Early on in my time with this employer, attempts had been made to fleece me, usually by piling work on me that should have been done by others. I resisted and protested. That was politically unwise: I fell out of favour with the big boss and a proportion of my colleagues sensed this and realised they needed to show him that they were on his side and not mine. Hence the eleven individuals who specifically contributed to my redundancy. Each had his/her own reasons, but disappointingly few were innocent in terms of simply fighting their own corner and preserving their own job in a situation of 'someone has to go and I'm determined it won't be me'. A major motivation seemed to be what I came to think of as 'sucking up to the boss'. Characteristic behaviour was to find ways of marginalising me, preventing opportunities that would allow me to integrate into the institution, have a 'hold', prove my worth and demonstrate that I had a lot to offer. Alongside that was a high degree of undermining, working behind the scenes to contradict, prevent or render impotent any decisions that I made.

Open attacks were more rare, but happened, and I was publicly contradicted with incoherent and illogical arguments. This behaviour came from all directions: colleagues on a par with me, as well as some above and some I line managed. Having been fleeced like a sheep at the outset, perhaps my eventual slaughter was inevitable.



As I reflected on these new insights, I felt humiliated and struck by how naive I had been. But in retrospect, I had also been the victim of a particularly toxic environment - what other business writers classify as a 'pathologically politicised' organisation.3 That offered a degree of reassurance, but I was not wholly convinced. Discussion with friends as well as my wise psychotherapist started to reveal that my core Christian values had played a significant role. I had treated others as I expected them to treat me. They didn't. I had been open and honest. They weren't, and eagerly seized the opportunities this offered to exploit my vulnerabilities. I operated logically and rationally. They didn't, despite the fact that all my colleagues were as, if not more, intelligent and intellectually able than me. I refused to back stab. They didn't hesitate. I treated them with courtesy and respect. They bullied. Mine are values that I associate with my Christianity, values that I have always understood to be linked to integrity, to truth, to goodness and yes, to holiness and virtue.

Just a cursory look at Baddeley and James's typology suggests that I was in a tricky place from the outset. Most of my colleagues (and probably all eleven of those directly responsible for my redundancy) operated as foxes, with one or two donkeys. Foxes and sheep are diametrically opposite one from the other, and it seems to me that the line between 'psychological game playing' and 'acting with integrity' is both very insightful as well as significant for Christians for whom integrity is crucial. I am assuming that few would consciously choose to be on the 'psychological game playing' side of the fence. My own, personal, choice therefore became how to move myself from being a sheep to become an owl. During my six years with this employer I had operated with low political awareness and high integrity - but to survive in future work places I clearly needed to become much more politically aware. Perhaps I also needed to re-evaluate my understanding of Christian integrity, but without compromising it; I would thereby have a different overall framework within which to interpret and exercise it.

It is a move from innocence to wisdom, and therefore a move that Christians should be able to relate to. But what characterises it? Baddeley and James underpin their typology with two principal skills: 'carrying' and 'reading'.
'One carries into situations the predisposition to play psychological games or to act with integrity. One's political awareness is determined by what one reads or fails to read in different situations.'4  

Baddeley and James see all four archetypal behaviours as precisely that: behaviours, as distinct from personality traits. They also consider that the healthiest and most beneficial behaviour for all concerned-individuals, managers and managed, as well as employers and businesses-is that of wisdom. Interestingly, they cite Jesus' response to the Pharisees' trick question, 'Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's and unto God the things which are God's' (Mark 12:17; Matthew 22:21) as modelling wise behaviour. Which is perhaps the best practical example of the outworking of another of Jesus' injunctions to be 'wise as serpents and innocent as doves' (Matthew 10:16). Understanding each type as a behaviour also means that wisdom can be learnt, practised, developed and used sensitively as a skill in individual situations.

I was lucky to move straight into another full-time job following my redundancy, but I did so with my eyes opened and a greater awareness not only of the ways in which people behaved that could have a negative impact on me, but also of ways in which I could manage these. I found the analogy of a chess board helpful. Like it or not, I am a player in my institution, especially as I climb further up the promotional ladder. I can choose to function as an innocent pawn-akin to Baddeley and James's sheep - or one of the powerful pieces whose task it is to use the pawns to their advantage. I don't have to operate as King or Queen, wiping pawns and others off the board with an underlying agenda of winning, nor perhaps a Rook whose dealings with others are largely crooked. Instead, I can operate with reference to my personal Christian integrity, while contributing to the game in a way that makes appropriate use of my wisdom and skills. But play I must.

I have a long way to go yet, but some of the techniques I am beginning to put into place and which are proving their worth while allowing me to maintain my Christian values and integrity are as follows:

In meetings I consciously ask myself who holds the power and why. Study their behaviour. Do they operate as foxes, donkeys or owls, or are they perhaps sheep who have been placed there as stooges? Whose behaviour do I admire not simply because they seem to share my values, but because they operate wisely? What characterises this wisdom? What can I put into practice in my own modus operandi?

Many clues can be gained from dialogues with colleagues and bosses, especially if they seem to speak in riddles or contradict and misinterpret what is said to them. At that point, I am learning to stand back and try and identify what the actual message is. A reprimand about a small matter of comparative insignificance has often proved to convey a much bigger issue that the person is actually referring to. The more quickly I have been able to identify that background issue and respond appropriately to it, the more probable it is that I can pre-empt a rapid descent into a difficult relationship. Quite often conversations cannot be taken at face value. Learn to look for these clues, list what they are, and work hard at hearing the real message.

Many workplaces do not operate with the same thought patterns and ways of reasoning that characterise other social milieux. Expectations between people are different, interactions are different, and the balance of power is different. Often the 'allowances' that are made for personal weaknesses in every day life and the normal give and take are not present, and few managers have a real grasp of human psychology and motivation. Focus on pleasing the person who is on the next rung up the ladder and find ways of believing in yourself in the absence of affirmation.

Baddeley and James reveal their own awareness of how important this is. The Christian virtue of being selfless and putting others before self, with its corresponding expectation that others will do the same (towards me) frequently has the effect of lessening people's proactive involvement as well as their self belief. I have deliberately done a considerable amount of reading on assertiveness in the workplace and seek to put many of the principles and practices into place. It comes hard. My background is one which often equates assertive techniques with selfishness and self-centredness, and I am having to get used to the realisation that this is not actually the case. I am also having to take on board the fact that assertiveness demands energy and can be tiring. 'Selflessness', in the way I practised it, has often been a lazy, easy option.

Do it regardless of their behaviour, and in public where appropriate - but do so with integrity. Don't praise someone for something I consider unpraiseworthy, but seek opportunities to say something positive to everyone from time to time. It is surprising how often such opportunities arise, and how doing this reflects well on me, shifting me out of 'passive pawn mode' while buying me time to discern where individuals fall in Baddeley and James's typology and therefore how to behave wisely towards each. It also earns me valuable support when the chips are down.

Read about organisational politics, analyse situations through this lens, understand how the procedures work, what drives them and who stands to benefit and/or lose out. There are many good websites. Some which I have found useful are:,, and

I am fully aware that I have much to learn, and that each situation is unique, with its own unique characteristics. I am aware too that values such as honesty and integrity are not solely Christian values, and my web-search for 'organisational politics' revealed that it is a common challenge. But I do believe that Christians may be particularly at risk of being singled-out for the kind of treatment I received, particularly as employers look for cuts and redundancies in harsh economic times. So I offer my experience and the beginnings of my journey towards a different understanding of my role not only in the workplace but also in life in general, in the hope that others will find it useful.

Jesus may have sent us out 'as sheep among wolves', but no wise sheep will offer itself to a wolf to be devoured. We need to wise up!