Lord of the rings

Rivalry: Trumping one's colleague on the career ladder had a sordid history in the workplace long before it became a television sensation.

April 15, 2004|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

Office politics, like the kind that have riveted a national TV audience for months on The Apprentice, aren't new. Backstabbing and rivalry are at least as old as the Bible.

But the changing workplace of the past generation has accentuated the nature of office politics, labor psychologists and others say. With more turnover and less job security, workers are more likely to say negative things about colleagues in private to get ahead.

Moreover, many companies have moved from a formal hierarchy to a more team-oriented structure, so that pleasing the boss is no longer enough to win advancement, and some workers are motivated to say negative things to vault ahead of their peers.

"It really hurts morale," said Andrew DuBrin, a professor of management and an industrial psychologist at the Rochester Institute of Technology. "Even if we expect it, it still hurts if someone says something about you, and it hurts teamwork."

What happens in the boardrooms of corporate America is a mystery to most workers. But on NBC's hit The Apprentice, viewers have been engrossed for weeks as workers verbally attacked one another behind closed doors, all in the hope that one of them will land a $250,000-a-year job with real estate tycoon Donald Trump. Although the program is regarded as a contrived version of a workplace, the shenanigans it portrays are true to life.

"The premise of the show is set up to exaggerate that a little, with the different teams and the different contests and the blaming that the show is founded on," said Matt McAllister, an associate professor and director of graduate studies at Virginia Tech who researches popular culture. Trump "has to fire someone, and he asks people, `Who should I fire?' So the show has a blame-and-fault ethos to it."

"There's a recognition factor, just like in The Bachelor and Joe Millionaire, [where] the stupidity and paranoia of dating is recognized," said Robert J. Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television.

To some degree, The Apprentice, the season finale of which is tonight at 9, is set up to play corporate loyalty against betrayal. Viewers have reveled in certain participants' maneuvers, such as Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth lying to her boss.

"I think everybody has been lied about or think they've been lied about in a workplace situation," Thompson said.

In real workplaces, workers are most likely to shift blame to one another when a promotion is at stake or when resources are scarce, said Lisa A. Mainiero, a professor of management at Fairfield University's Charles F. Dolan School of Business in Connecticut.

As workplaces have grown more informal and the pace of work has quickened, much of the hierarchy that once characterized traditional organizations has eroded, said Karl Aquino, an associate professor of management at the University of Delaware who studies office politics and behavior at work. So people are behaving less formally at work, whether by raising their voices or treating colleagues with less respect.

"People are less willing to bite their tongues when they have a grievance," Aquino said.

Technology is also changing office politics, with employees able to instantly dash off nasty e-mails on their computers.

Recent business scandals -- such as the stock market abuses investigated by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and the recent trial of Martha Stewart for lying about a stock sale -- reveal the pitfalls of leaving behind electronic "paper trails."

"If I'm going to spread nasty rumors about people, it's much better to do it over the water cooler, where I'll have some plausible deniability," said Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior in Stanford University's Graduate School of Business and author of Managing with Power: Politics and Influence in Organizations.

When economic times are good, office politics cool, experts said. In Silicon Valley's venture capital industry, many partnerships are dissolving, too fragile to survive a down cycle.

"When times were good, nobody really cared if they liked their partners," Pfeffer said.

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