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Fighting Jungle Fighters 101

Categories: Politics, PMO, Game Theory

Yvonne Polmanteer’s comment on my previous blog started with the sentence “I see egos and politics becoming more and more of a stumbling block for projects,” and I think she’s spot-on. Like Gantthead contributors Kenneth Darter and Michael Wood, I have a few things to say about project politics, and I believe a little game theory can help. For the sake of this discussion, I’d like to define office or project politics as those acts performed by individuals that further their personal agendas at the expense of achieving the goals of either the project or the performing organization. Proceeding from this definition, I would like to discuss two similar creatures: Hawks, and Jungle Fighters.

As I discuss (Marlin Perkins alert!) in my newly released book, Game Theory in Management (, a favorite game for evaluating, calculating, and predicting aggressive or passive behavior patterns is the Hawk-Dove game. Imagine two birds who share a common environment. If they act peaceably (like doves) towards each other, then they forage for food, and consume it. So their payoff for choosing a Dove strategy is the daily available food supply (V), divided by the two of them (V/2). Note that this strategy maximizes the payoff for the entire population of birds in the given environment. However, if the daily available food supply drops below the level to keep them both alive, then at least one of them must act aggressively (like a hawk) towards the other by taking part of its claim to the food supply if it is to avoid starvation. The Hawk’s payoff, then, becomes the entire food supply (V), minus the expense of actively taking the other bird’s food, or preventing them from foraging in the first place (C). Of course, the birds may elect a Hawk strategy even if starvation is not a threat.

Now, imagine a population of 100 birds. Again, the payoff for the entire population is maximized if they all select the Dove strategy. But, with the introduction of even one Hawk, the Nash Equilibrium – that point at which the individual game participants can not improve their payoffs by changing strategies – quickly works out to 25% Hawk, and 75% Dove. While this may manifest as 25% of the birds acting as hawks all of the time, the usual outcome is a given bird chooses to act aggressively one-quarter of the time, and like a dove the other times.

Industrial psychologist Michael Maccoby’s brilliant book The Gamesman (Simon and Schuster, 1976) posited four broad types of workers:

  • Craftsmen, who don’t really care for whom they work, but care a good deal about the quality of their output;
  • Company Men, who tend to adopt the persona of the organization for whom they work;
  • Jungle Fighters, who indulge in calumny and deceit in order to get ahead, and
  • Gamesmen, who view their participation in the workplace as a game, one they intend to win.

Of the Maccoby archetypes, the Jungle Fighters are clearly the most political. As they further their personal agendas (at the expense of the organization’s or project’s goals), they make it a point of minimizing the achievements of their perceived competitors on the team, while conveying and amplifying their mistakes. Like the Hawk-Dove game, the project team performs best when each of the participants pursue the team’s goals first and foremost; however, with the introduction of even one Jungle Fighter, the Nash Equilibrium for selecting Jungle Fighter strategies will be quickly realized, and it won’t stop or be confined to the existing number of Jungle Fighters on the team. Some members who would not ordinarily select Jungle Fighter strategies will soon find themselves in a position to either start, or have their standing and influence within the team severely eroded.

So, how does one counter?  Keeping in mind that the influence of office politics is widespread, powerful, and damaging, and that this blog’s title includes the term “101,” indicating beginning-level, I recommend the following tactics:

  • Know that Jungle-Fighter-free project teams and organizations are extremely rare, and you will need to be able to identify the Jungle Fighters around you as early in the project as possible.
  • Nullify their favorite tactic: the ex parte conversation. I once worked for a manager who inherited a highly political group. His first action was to announce that, if any employee came to him with a criticism or “concern” about another member of the team, he would immediately stop that conversation and call that other person into the office. The influence of the Jungle Fighters took an immediate and significant hit.
  • Once they have been identified, and their favorite tactic removed as an option, if they continue to select Jungle Fighter (highly and negatively political) strategies, they must be eliminated from the project team or organization. Of course, if you are not a manager, this is difficult if not impossible.

Sadly, many organizations (a) don’t want to recognize that managing people in such a way as to deviate from a pure meritocracy is extremely damaging, and (b) recognize that politics is in play, but don’t want to do anything about it. Such organizations are vulnerable to a Jungle-Fighter-initiated tail spin, as more and more workers who would not normally engage in Jungle Fighter strategies come to believe that they must. These projects only end badly. So, the game then becomes one of recognizing when you are working for such an organization, and knowing when to leave a lost cause.

Posted on: June 03, 2012 08:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)

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