Career advice: Stay clear of office politics

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(MoneyWatch) People often ask me about my best employees, who are always a joy to talk or write about. I'm rarely asked about my worst hires -- perhaps people imagine (quite incorrectly) that I never had any. But every company gets them and mine was called George.

George had spent about 20 years working for the same organization. When it restructured, for the first time in his life, he was a so-called free agent. He liked the idea of being free and tried hard to find value in his new freelance career. But, like many emerging from a highly corporate environment, he had developed a keen eye for office politics and imagined himself a shrewd participant.

George's idea of politics consisted of identifying the most powerful people within an organization and ingratiating himself with them. With them, he could not be more charming, helpful and always, always agreeable. George never once had an argument with power. Instead, he'd try to convince his team that the high-and-mighty thought the world of him, that on his shoulders the fate of the company rode. I'm not sure they ever bought it.

I disliked George and the political games he played. But what made him a bad employee was that he never had ideas of his own. His core capability lay in second-guessing: What I thought, what our board members might think. Instead of being creative, he was always looking for positions he could adopt which would make him look good. The consequence was that George's ideas were always secondhand and second-rate.

Although his love of politics eventually got him fired, he might have been saved had he been genuinely creative. But George thought what many employees thought: That the way to get ahead was always to agree with the boss. He never appreciated that this made him a waste of time, money and opportunity. He wasn't being paid to be an echo chamber.

  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

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