It's no secret that the domination game is pretty much the only game in the corporate world, and your ability to play this game can determine your success. Many successful people became powerful because they used their power over others, often in ruthless ways.
However, the "I win/you lose" dichotomy takes its toll -- on both men and women. For men, being dominant often means having to pretend you are in more control that you actually feel, and having to present a façade of invulnerability. Women playing the game, on the other hand, have to prove themselves man enough for the job, and often alienate themselves from other women in order to protect their hard won position.
We've seen the destructiveness of this game with the Wall Street debacle, it's un-sustainability with the implosion of the USSR, and the explosion of the Middle East, as well as with the degradation of the environment. In day-to-day office politics, the domination game of seeking power and ego boosting is a great distractor from the real work that needs to be done.
It's such a devastating and successful game, is there any chance of changing it? It's a huge challenge. But it is helpful to look at the larger context.
We are in the midst of a monumental struggle, where patriarchy and its use of power struggles to keep its control while a collaborative world is struggling to be born. These struggles are with us every day if we take note. Each of us can help midwife this new era of collaboration by changing the game in our everyday exchanges. But often, we just don't know quite how to handle it.
"Celeste" has a story that shows how, if you have enough power and self-confidence, you can not only not play the game but you can also change it.
Celeste applied for a job for which her skills and experience were a perfect fit. When she was told that the job was at the director level, she said that was below her level of experience and skills. She added that she would be prepared to discuss a VP position. The hiring committee encouraged her to go through the interview process anyway. Throughout the interview, she made it clear repeatedly that she was only interested in a VP position. "I wanted a VP position as a career step for myself, but I also felt it was right for the company because this role needed to be interacting with the executive team," Celeste told me, "and I made this absolutely clear during the interview."
The offer letter arrived. It was for a director.
Instead of getting upset about the letter, she met with the HR person. "I've made it very clear from the very beginning of the interviews with this company that I'm not interested in a director level position," she told him. "I'm interested in a VP position." He said, "I can't make that decision." Just then her future boss walked into the office and the HR person asked him if it would be ok if she was a VP. The boss's face turned a little red, and he said to go ask the CEO. By the end of day, Celeste had the offer letter corrected to a VP of sales position. They knew Celeste was right for the job; they were afraid to take the plunge because of a previously bad experience with a VP.
Lesson 1: If you are clear about what you bring to the table and clear about what you want from the table, then be persistent and insistent. Don't let others override you, or intimidate you in settling for less than what you really want.
She learned another person, David, had just been hired at a director level in marketing. David assumed incorrectly that he would take over the entire sales and marketing area. He immediately saw there was a problem; Celeste, in charge of sales and in a higher management position, threatened his authority.
"He was so obvious; it was a big barbaric run for power." Celeste told me. "He was befriending the male executives and diminishing the work of the female executives. He would introduce some concepts and act like everyone was just going to go along with what he wanted to do. I didn't agree with his strategy, and told him so very directly. He looked at me like, 'How dare you!' In a couple of meetings, I made it very clear he wasn't going to dominate me."
From the start, David assumed, because he was a confident and competent man that he could walk into a situation and dominate it. When Celeste refused to play, he changed his tactics and starting looking for insecurities and vulnerabilities that might give him an advantage over Celeste. His fishing around turned up nothing .
Look at the different responses among men and women executives, to Celeste David arriving on the scene, and behaving with confidence. Whereas the men quickly aligned in support of David, the women felt threatened by Celeste, and left her to fend for herself. Celeste wondered how different it might for her had the executive women rallied to her.
Lesson 2: Don't engage in the domination game, that is, don't let others dominate you but also don't try to dominate others. And don't take these aggressive acts personally, although it's hard not to. It's often all people know how to play.
After several weeks it became clear to David that his efforts to elevate his position by attacking Celeste failed, and he was very upset about it. Celeste held her ground against his aggression, but she also praised him for his work. People would ask her what she thought of David and she consistently said she thought he did a great job at what he did, because she genuinely thought that.
Celeste was able to separate the David's aggressive behavior from his considerable abilities. She focused on his good qualities rather than getting caught up in office politics, posturing and one-upmanship. She drew a line in the sand, but she was kind to him as well. At one point, the company was reorganizing and David was to report to Celeste. Celeste told her boss David wasn't going to be happy reporting to her, given their history; it wouldn't be a good dynamic for either of them. She was fine with him reporting to someone else if that would make him more comfortable and productive, which would also benefit the company.
At the end of the day, David and Celeste have more of a friendship with each other than anyone else in the organization, and a budding collaborative work relationship. Celeste feels good that she could "be friends with someone who was so clearly trying to dominate me. I didn't allow that domination, and at the same time, I was able to be supportive of his work; that's an accomplishment.
I saw his aggressive strategy more a reflection of his socialization, rather than who he really is. The domination game is the only game he knew how to play. I know he has a tremendous amount of respect for me now because he's seen me say no and he also knows he was supposed to report to me and I diverted it. We are actually learning to collaborate with each other.
"It's very powerful to walk through the day knowing you are confident in your ability and you don't have to engage in that destructive behavior. I've told people that I am not participating in that toxic behavior. They all admit that it's toxic and they are exhausted by it; it takes a lot of energy away from getting the work done.
Lesson 3: Change the game by separating behavior from the person. Speak to what is best in a person while holding your ground against being bossed. Most of us don't know much about collaborating. It is the new game in town. Being patient and persistent with ourselves and others on this learning curve already changes the dynamics.
Changing the game has a ripple effect that goes beyond the immediate relationship and has a positive impact on the people who are engaged or have seen this destructive behavior. Celeste had four young women come to her, asking if they could work for her because they saw a different way of working, and they wanted it.
Younger women really want the more collaborative model; they are starving to see it. Although I don't agree with the other executive women trying to dominate and micromanage me, I have no animosity towards them. I know they are very smart women and I know they will be relieved if we can all work together. I just think they're acting out a model they have seen over and over again.
I've always wanted to be revolutionary in my own corner of the world and here I am. Mainly I feel grateful that I had the tools and experience and knew what to do in this situation, instead of getting caught up in the game.
And most women actually do.