The 8 Types of Players You’ll Find in Office Politics

Oct 4, 2013

By Jack Godwin, PhD

Why are archetypes important to office politics?

Archetypes are symbols in concentrated form, reflections and expressions of our culture and human nature. They are common to the human race and present in all of us, which partly explains why office politics takes on familiar, recurring patterns regardless culture, location or era.

If you work in an organization of any size, for any duration of time, you may notice how people emulate archetypes and inhabit pre-packaged roles, and how the archetypes migrate from one individual to another.

How do you use the archetypes to your advantage in office politics? It all has to do with pattern recognition.

Like a game of chess

As I said, archetypes are symbols in concentrated form and full of coded meaning, but only if you know the code. In office politics, success often depends on recognizing patterns, relationships and interdependencies. If you can recognize similar patterns or situations you have encountered in the past, like a good chess player, it is possible to apply similar tactics to the situation at hand.

Office politics, like chess, is a combination of one-time calculation and general pattern recognition. As your ability to recognize patterns increases, so will your ability to read the field and read the players, defend yourself and make the workplace better for everyone around you: your friends, colleagues, even your boss.

Here is a brief summary of the eight political archetypes from The Office Politics Handbook:

1. The Servant-Leader

This archetype leads by example and wins the consent of her followers without resorting to threats of punishment or promises of reward. Knowing how to lead means teaching people do to without you so they can lead themselves. And it means learning not to rely on your job title or your place in the hierarchy to impose your will.

Leadership isn’t something you can keep in inventory and it isn’t something any individual has all the time in every situation. Leadership does not depend on your place on the organizational chart, but on the follower’s response.

If people don’t respond favorably and voluntarily, there is no leadership. No exceptions.

2. The Rebel

This archetype personifies the idea that politics involves and even requires at least two oppositional people. The tension of opposites is the motive power of human evolution, which Austrian economist Josef Schumpeter recognized when he coined the phrase “creative destruction” to describe the evolutionary process of change essential to capitalism.

The oppositional nature of political relationships implies that a certain amount of conflict, tension and chaos is inevitable in any organization. This presents a particular challenge for Rebels, who may take pride in placing themselves outside conventional society — especially after extended periods in opposition — and risk becoming members of the permanent opposition.

3. The Mentor

This archetype is the counselor who facilitates, mediates, negotiates and thus acquires great influence over important decisions. There is something very powerful about the mentor-protégé relationship, which may explain why the archetype is replicated in many different situations.

Business leaders, professional athletes, entertainers and especially politicians rely on the services of a mentor to help manage their companies, careers and political campaigns. This is a privileged position but not a job title, and thus more precarious than you could guess by reading the organizational chart. For the would-be Mentor, success requires diplomacy and discretion so the results of your work are more conspicuous than you are.

4. The Recluse

This archetype personifies professional detachment, a quiet determination to withdraw from the world, offering nothing, seeking nothing. The key is to conserve energy by retreating.

The Recluse does not yield, but distances herself from her adversary, puts herself out of reach. This is an act of disengagement, not rebellion. There’s no need to move to a remote mountaintop without Wi-Fi, cable television or cell phone service.

However, you must cultivate the same cool, professional detachment as the medical examiner you see in those popular crime-scene-investigator shows on television. For some people, particularly those who have trouble disconnecting from the internet, putting the Recluse archetype into practice can be a monumental challenge.

5. The Judo Master

The name for this archetype comes from judo, which translated literally means “the gentle way.” Gentleness is not the same thing as weakness. It does not mean surrendering the initiative, but leveraging force rather than resisting it.

Success with this archetype depends on economy of motion, producing the maximum positive outcome with the least amount of effort. Remember, power is a decisive factor only in short conflicts. The longer a conflict lasts, the more important endurance becomes, which can get you into trouble if you overestimate your power and underestimate your adversary’s endurance.

The ultimate goal of this archetype is not to prevail in every conflict, nor to demonstrate your dominance, but to preempt conflict and thus win without fighting. This is the gentle way.

6. The Resister

This archetype personifies the individual who may be overpowered, but continues to follow her conscience and refuses to give her consent.

Resistance is a personal act because the resister’s primary concern is her own behavior. Resistance may become a political act when it is calculated to change someone else’s bad behavior.

Rosa Parks is a perfect example. Before she was a civil rights icon, she was a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama. She was on a city bus one day and refused to give up her seat to a white passenger and the police arrested her.

Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat began as a personal act and became political when others decided to follow her example. This is how the seamstress became the archetype.

7. The Opportunist

The first and only principle for this archetype is opportunism, which requires you to take advantage of any unusual or helpful circumstances to mislead your adversary regarding your true intentions.

The best example of this is tactical dislocation, which we see all the time in sports: in baseball the change-up to fool batters; in football the draw to fool defenders; and in basketball the no-look pass, which often fools everyone, players and spectators alike.

Former Lakers star Ervin “Magic” Johnson was the master of tactical dislocation as he dribbled down the court on a fast break, turning his head one way and flipping the ball to an undefended teammate beside him or even behind him. The idea is to distract your adversary, disrupt their plans and exploit their weakness.

8. The Survivor

This archetype personifies the individual who has nothing, who has lost everything but never forgets that victory is survival — and survival is victory.

This is important when you remember that politics is the art of the possible. It’s the art of recognizing when you have only one choice. It may not be your first choice or your second, not even your third, but it is a choice nonetheless.

Every time you choose to survive, you pass a critical test. Which brings us to the old adage attributed to Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” To me, the word unexamined means untested, and the untested life is not worth living. The way you test your life is by asserting your power through stubborn endurance, resistance to hardship, and persistence in the face of adversity.

Adapted from The Office Politics Handbook: Winning the Game of Power and Politics at Work, By Jack Godwin, PhD  © 2013 by Jack Godwin. Published by Career Press.