Allison M. Vaillancourt

Vice President, Business Affairs & Human Resources and Professor Practice, School of Government & Public Policy at The University of Arizona

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Finding Out Who’s Got Game

Full white men cant jump

Image: White Men Can’t Jump (1992)

When Amazon recently recommended I read Sarah Cooper’s 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings: How to Get by Without Even Trying, I immediately added it to my shopping cart thinking I was ordering a serious book on upping my professional game. It was helpful, alright, but not quite in the way I expected.

That’s because the advice offered by Cooper, formerly the design lead for Google Docs, is actually a comical list of tips and tricks that call out some of our smarmiest and most annoying colleagues. Do the book’s strategies actually work? Yes, I have to admit many of them do. Will they keep working once more people have figured them all out? I certainly hope not. And something tells me Sarah Cooper is on a mission to make sure they don’t.

Her advice — which includes the best way to make missing a meeting someone else’s fault and how to shift power in a room by standing up to draw a senseless Venn diagram — reveals what slackers and wannabees have known for years: When one is short on substance or smarts, image is everything. So if you need advice about how to subtly claim credit for someone else’s work, deftly deflect blame, or appear wise instead of vacuous, Cooper’s tutorial is well worth the money.

As I read Cooper’s 100 strategies, I was able to assign the names of people I know who practice many of the tactics:

  • There is the copious note taker who breaks from scribbling only to say, “Ooh; now that is profound” — and thus encourage people to generate more suggestions that can be eventually co-opted and claimed as original ideas.
  • There is the one who constantly says, “Let me play the role of provocateur here,” when even the most banal subjects are up for discussion because he just wants to appear edgy and intellectual.
  • And there is the one who responds to the small-talk question — “What’s happening in your world?” — with, “So, so much, and I hope you understand that I’m not at liberty to talk about any of it right now.”

Those of us who have been around for awhile, know who’s got game and who’s got nothing. But those less familiar with organizational politics may struggle to understand who is powerful and who is not. The uninitiated may see Cooper’s strategies in action and think they signal genuine status — much like the uninformed believe that organizational charts offer meaningful clues about actual levels of influence.

Here are three ways to tell who has real power and who is desperate to be considered a player.

Watch where they sit. Sitting next to the leader is a common trick used by people who want to signal insider status. It’s done to suggest that there is a co-leading situation that will require in-the-meeting whispering and conferring. To make this work, it might seem like you’d have to arrive early to ensure the proper seat but that’s not necessary or, apparently, a good use of precious time. One person I know regularly shows up late, and then moves an empty chair from a perfectly good spot around the table to the space next to the meeting leader — which, of course, requires the person already sitting next to the leader to scoot over. Another doesn’t bother moving chairs and simply taps the the person sitting next to the leader on the shoulder and points to an empty chair. “I’m the real one with power here” is the intended message, “and now the meeting can officially begin.”

Listen for what they know. People with real power tend have self-confidence and they don’t feel a need to bluff when they don’t know everything. When they are asked to comment on something that is unfamiliar, they say things like, “I hadn’t heard that” or “Really? That is so surprising.” In contrast, people who want to appear powerful and in-the-know are likely to respond, “I’m not really comfortable sharing on that” or they may close their eyes and shake their heads as if to suggest they have deep and top-secret information that is troubling them greatly.

Pay attention to how they make their points. While there are exceptions, people who are confident about their power listen more than they talk. They tend to engage in inquiry rather than advocacy, expressing curiosity about other perspectives rather than attempting to wear down those with opposing points of view. They ask questions — often provocative ones — rather than make pronouncements and mini-speeches.

There is a fine line here, of course, between asking provocative questions to enrich a conversation and asking them to highlight your superior analysis skills. I will admit to volleying, “Are we even asking the right question here?,” when I am bored with a conversation or craving attention. I hereby pledge to stop doing that because it is, admittedly, obnoxious.

Questions that signal a colleague is trying too hard include:

  • “The trend line is compelling, but where is the regression analysis?”
  • “I’ve said it before and I will say it again, what about the students?”
  • “If Hannah Arendt and Ayn Rand were alive today, what would be their take on this?”
  • “How do we know any of what we believe to be true is truly actually true?”

If you hear questions that seem nonsensical, it’s likely that you are not the only one who thinks so. Consider responding with, “Is this the right question, or do we just think it is the right question?” or “Why Hannah Arendt and not Martin Heidegger?” The original questioner will be unable to offer an articulate response, and you will win the admiration of colleagues for quieting a blowhard.

No, I’m kidding. That will not happen. The blowhard will remain a blowhard and you will look like a jerk for attempting an even well-deserved takedown. Better to try, “Hannah Arendt and Ayn Rand? Now that is a study in contrasts,” or say nothing at all because even powerless people make for dangerous enemies.

The ability to make sense of organizational power dynamics is a valuable career skill. You must be a keen observer and a careful listener. You also must be able to learn from being burned, after crossing or trusting the wrong people. Building political savvy is hard and often painful work and there is no reliable manual or checklist that can help us navigate or obtain proficiency in organizational politics.

So what is one to do?

Well, definitely read Sarah Cooper’s new book and then redouble your efforts to listen more than talk and pay close attention to who’s getting things done and how. Perhaps the most important recommendation is to forge relationships with as many people as possible. Chances are, you will eventually discover, or be introduced, to truth tellers and smoke clearers who can serve as interpreters and navigators. They are wise and savvy souls who can respond reliably to the, “Is it just me, or did he just use a lot of words to say nothing at all?” questions that surface for many of us who work in even the healthiest of environments.

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