Okay, we all know about social niceties, even political correctness – communicating so as not to offend. But what about deception that deliberately, and persuasively serves another purpose, as we saw in the example in the previous section.
Politics occurs when observers perceive that influence tactics are self-serving behaviours to gain advantage and benefits at the expense of others, sometimes even contrary to the interests of the overall organization or work unit. Of course, one man’s politics can be another woman’s legitimate use of power and influence. There is nothing wrong with presenting arguments to attract resources and support for your projects, especially if your arguments are honestly presented, factually sound and serve a larger purpose than your own position. Where influence becomes politics is when your arguments are deceptive, are presented in secret, away from counter-argument and serve your own personal agenda. In the real world, politics and influence often are a confused blend of both. One person’s influence is another’s politics. Sometimes we are not even aware ourselves that our efforts may be seen as political. To guard yourself from sliding from influencing to politics you need to be attentive, and mindful of your own ethics and integrity; and perhaps fear of the gossip mongers.
Gossip is not always easily recognized, cloaked as it often is in tact and diplomacy (subtle yet poisonous) but it is certainly about politics; it is communicating with confederates with malice and with condemnation as the agenda – out of earshot of the target. It undermines the position of the target and it tears at the fabric of cohesiveness, especially if others remain silent out of fear of recrimination and gossip themselves. Gossip, less insidious perhaps than politics, is nevertheless odious and destructive and serves no purpose. Or does it?
Gossip is casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true. Social anthropologists suggest gossip is the great leveler in the society: it ensures that the members of the tribe do not get too high on themselves and then appropriate more resources to themselves at the expense of other members of the tribe. We all seek status in our tribe but this may come at the expense of someone else. High status people are admired by their tribe but also envied and resented. Gossip is the leaven of malice borne of jealousy. Status in a society is one thing but acceptance is another, and we seek both. We achieve status at the expense of acceptance. Envious gossip gradually creates distance between the high status target and the group, ultimately resulting in isolation. Ostracism is the worst punishment the tribe can impose on a member, short of burning at the stake. Or if you’re still feeling like it’s Grade XI all over again, eating alone in the cafeteria. No wonder people feel acutely the approbation of others, even from members of the accounting department.
If gossip is a form of destructive politeness silent self-preservation is its handmaiden. Gossip not only undermines a member of the team, even if socially polite, it can unravel the very fabric of the team itself. But what of the dishonesty of silence. You know what I mean – not speaking up when a wrong is going uncorrected. Rather than speak up we compromise our own integrity for fear of being sanctioned by another who has more power than we do – even the group of gossiping secretaries. Conviction, and its cousin, courage, are the pre-requisite elements for speaking up, for bringing a dose of honesty to the conversation. So take courage and raise your objections firmly, though with tact and diplomacy, of course.
Speaking up with honesty and integrity is one thing, but ‘blunt speaking’ can have its own consequences: the analytic thinker who assumes everyone thinks like he does (logically, rationally) and says, out loud, ‘what sort of idiot could make such stupid claims’; the hyper-sensitive social activist who won’t concede that there are other points of view; the assertive realist who forces a decision on the group before the members are ready. I’m sure you can think of dozens of other examples of people of conviction who come across tactless and become social pariahs. They pay a huge price for their honesty, as they see it.
Although the last few sections have discussed the relationship between politeness and honesty you should not conclude that being polite means always having to be dishonest or deceitful. In most interpersonal relationships being polite is desirable and a reflection of your awareness and respect for others; being honest is to be true to yourself. In our next post we will take one last look at this delicate problem of presenting yourself with honesty and integrity while communicating with tact and diplomacy.
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