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How to Handle Game of Thrones-Style Power Plays at Work

Author: Kristen Lund Date: June 06, 2014

Don’t be a Lannister—assert yourself without being ruthless.

In the acclaimed TV show Game of Thrones, the wealthy Lannister family clamors for power and goes to extremes (think bloody assassinations) to stop anyone who tries to usurp it. Although there may not be a fictional kingdom at stake, small business owners also have to deal with power plays from employees—but they can manage them without resorting to Lannister-esque ruthlessness.

Dr. Shari Frisinger, a consultant and president of CornerStone Strategies LLC, in Houston, often works with clients who struggle to rein in disruptive employees. Frisinger, who holds a doctorate in executive leadership from the University of Charleston, shares three common power plays—the likes of which are also seen in Games of Thrones—and how small business owners should respond.

The Power Play: Passive-aggressiveness

The Cause: The instinct to “win” or be right, without the confidence to confront the business owner directly.

In Game of Thrones: Petyr Baelish, aka Littlefinger, the silver-tongued flatterer while people are present, is just as deft at critiquing the same people and plotting against them when they’re not around.

In Real Life: A passive-aggressive employee often appears calm during an important meeting or discussion, but, Frisinger says, “when they’re away from the boss, the ugliness comes out.” The employee trash-talks the business owner, making business decisions seem personal: “He/she doesn’t like me” or “It’s because I’m (young, old, new, male, female, etc.).

How to Handle It: Confront the employee by saying, “Is everything all right? You haven’t been yourself,” or, more directly, “I can tell you’re really bothered by this situation. Am I reading that correctly?”

Frisinger says passive-aggressive behavior can stem from misdirected frustration at problems outside of work. Other times, it’s caused by a fear of inadequacy, failure or even job loss. Once you find the root of the behavior, let the employee know, firmly but kindly, that it’s unacceptable. Try something like: “When your actions appear to undermine what’s been decided, and when you talk about it to others, you’re pulling them away from their jobs. If this happens again, we’ll need to have a conversation about how to handle it.”

The Power Play: Complaining

The Cause: To get attention or show off knowledge and experience

In Game of Thrones: Stannis Baratheon’s desire to rule the seven kingdoms is unrelenting, but he’s merely the king of whining.

In Real Life: These employees are constantly dissatisfied. They pose confrontational questions in meetings and challenge business owners repeatedly about the same issue.

How to Handle It: The first few times an employee rants to you, listen for a minute or two, say you understand, then find a reason to excuse yourself, such as a meeting. Chances are, the employee will calm down and move on. If not, confront him or her directly: “You’ve approached me about this before, so it’s obviously an issue. Can you tell me what’s going on?” Give them one minute to say their piece. Then ask, “What are you going to do about it?” Complainers believe they have no ownership of a situation, so this forces them to think about their own responsibilities and options.

The Power Play: Apathy

The Cause: Boredom, not feeling valued, inattention

In Game of Thrones: Joffrey Baratheon (pre-Purple Wedding, of course) could care less about his occupational duties: You know, like caring for impoverished Westeros citizens or listening to his enlightened council members.

In Real Life: These employees don’t pay attention in meetings (often distracted on smartphones or tablets), show up late or duck out to “take a call.”

How to Handle It: Confront the pattern, not isolated incidents: “I’ve noticed a trend during our last four staff meetings that you slip out early. What keeps coming up? Why do you think that’s more important?” Offer to change the meeting day or time—and whether you do or don’t—let the employee know your expectations: that they arrive on time and stay the whole time. Remind them that they’re valued and their contribution matters.

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