Workplace Politics Sucks. Agree?
What do you think of when you hear the words “office politics”? Is it all about “backstabbing,” spreading malicious rumours, and “sucking up” to the right people? If so, you’ll likely want to stay as far away from it as you can!
Workplace politics is the process and behaviour in human interactions involving power and authority.
It is the use of power and social networking within an organisation to achieve changes that benefit the organisation or individuals within it. But, like it or loathe it, office politics are a fact of life in any organisation. And it is possible to promote yourself and your cause without compromising your values or those of your organisation.
Signs, along with remedies for each, that characterise too many politics in the organisation:
Problem #1: Gridlock. Your company is at a standstill because no one can agree on what to do.
Remedy: Top leaders should reach a consensus of common goals. They should hold people accountable for following consensus guidelines during the decision-making process by doing the following: provide each person an opportunity to contribute, give people a chance to describe why they feel strongly about an idea with objective rationale when appropriate, listen to others’ opinions before responding, and try to find common elements among the various ideas. Leaders can also develop shorter-term plans to try out some ideas, testing them for long-term use or giving multiple ideas a chance.
Problem #2: Bureaucracy. People are so bogged down in paperwork, red tape, and stifling rules that their progress is impeded.
Remedy: Leaders must clarify the decisions that individuals can make on their own, deciding which require additional input and which need to be deferred to others. For example, an employee may be able to make a less-than-$1,000 accommodation for a customer but may need approval from a supervisor for any amount above that level. You might also formulate task teams to review processes and levels of approval that can be reduced and streamlined. Encourage people to consider new processes or procedures instead of falling back on the “but we’ve always done it this way” excuse.
Problem #3: Grandstanding (aka brown-nosing). People pay lip service to leaders’ ideas to flatter and curry favour with them, but have no real commitment to implementing change.
Remedy: Create a detailed plan for action, with clearly delineated roles and due dates. If individuals are held accountable for getting things done — and reporting to their peers and managers about progress — they are more committed to follow through.
Problem #4: The Two-Faced Two-Step. People say what they think the people they’re talking to at the moment want to hear.
Remedy: Leaders are responsible for creating an atmosphere where employees feel comfortable being upfront and honest. Whenever possible, they should adopt the devil’s advocate role to encourage employees to share bad news as well as good news. If employees describe the good points of a plan, ask them what could go wrong. Don’t “kill the messenger,” punishing those who bring up bad news or offer constructive criticism. Encourage open, honest, and direct feedback and thank people who voice their opinions.
Problem #5: Passing the Buck. No one takes responsibility for anything; people are quick to assign blame to someone else.
Remedy: Chronic finger pointing is a signal that employees operate in silos rather than as a team working together toward a common vision. Consider job shadowing or an orientation session to expose people to other parts of the business. For example, marketing representatives can ride with salespeople on their calls. In a well-known credit card company, every manager is required to answer customer service calls at least one time per month so they don’t get too far away from the lifeline of the business. Ask people in different departments to share their goals and to outline what they need from each other.
Problem #6: Laziness, Clock-watching, and Poor Work Ethic. People have a sense of entitlement; they’re just “putting in face time” until they can go home.
Remedy: Many workplaces need a shot of adrenaline. Find out about employees’ likes, dislikes, interests, talents, hopes, and dreams. Take a personal interest in them as people and share your enthusiasm and vision with them. Find ways to set realistic but challenging goals related to their areas of interest and skills whenever possible.
And don’t forget to coach them — provide ongoing feedback on what people do well and ask them for ideas on how things could be done more effectively. Build in mechanisms to offer small rewards for goal accomplishment, change, and innovation rather than for maintenance of the status quo.
Problem #7: Indirect Communication. Instead of talking to coworkers directly when they have a problem, employees complain to supervisors and talk about people behind their backs.
Remedy: Strive for transparency. Encourage individuals to ask questions and challenge the status quo. Gossip, rumours, and backbiting thrive in a closed-door work environment. When there are no secrets or off-limit conversations, the rumour mill starts to dissipate.
Make it clear that gossip and rumour won’t be tolerated. Participate in open forums on a regular basis and emphasise the fact that you’re always accessible.
Problem #8: Pork-barrelling. Influential employees push through expensive projects that serve only one small part of the company.
Remedy: In a high-functioning organisation communicating the overall common vision and goals of the organisation is a priority for leaders. They provide criteria for budget allotments and selection of projects based on how they contribute to the organisation's mission, values, and the estimated return on investment. When everyone is absolutely clear on what the company is working toward, pork-barrelling is automatically curtailed.
Problem #9: Corruption. People are actually embezzling from the company, fudging reports, or engaging in other unethical or illegal behaviour.
Remedy: Upholding ethical standards isn’t a “nice-to-do”; it is a “must-do” — especially since the recent rash of corporate scandals. Leaders must clearly state the organisation's ethical code and then hold people accountable to it, with zero tolerance for violations. Leaders also model appropriate behaviours that they want to see in others. One suggestion is to establish a “whistle-blowers” forum for individuals who want to report unethical behaviour without fear of repercussions.
Overcome Politics by Becoming a “VEO”
Once the nine political problems outlined above have been addressed, leadership can begin to transform the organisation into what I call a “Vibrant Entrepreneurial Organisation,” or VEO for short. A VEO is an organisation made up of employees who feel a sense of ownership for the business. They are driven to innovate constantly, to execute relentlessly, and to work with a sense of passion. They do what is necessary to stay ahead of the competition.
A “VEO” is an Organisation that:
- Provides people with a big picture view so they feel empowered to take risks
- Inspires and nurtures employee loyalty
- Supports high productivity while minimising stress
- Produces a winning tradition
- Elevates communication to an art form
Once employees start seeing positive results, they won’t need all the political distractions and dramas anymore. They’ll be fulfilled by their work. That’s what it’s like to work for a Vibrant Entrepreneurial Organisation. And once you break free of the political shackles holding you back, that’s exactly where you’ll be.
Seven Survival Tips for Office Politics
The foundation for making politics work for you in a positive way is to accept it as a reality. It may change over time, as people come and go in your organisation, but, chances are, it will never disappear entirely.
Then, you need to develop strategies to recognise and understand political behaviour and to build a strong and supportive network.
These seven tips can help you to do this:
1. Analyse the Organisation Chart
Office politics often circumvent the formal organisational structure. So, sit back and observe for a while, and then map the political power and influence in your organisation, rather than people’s rank or job title.
To do this, ask yourself questions like, “Who are the real influencers?,” “Who has authority but tends not to exercise it?,” “Who is respected?,” “Who champions or mentors others?,” and “Who is the brains behind the business?”
2. Understand the Informal Network
Once you know where the power and influence lie, it’s time to examine people’s interactions and relationships to understand the informal or social networks.
Watch closely (but discreetly and respectfully) to find out who gets along with who, and who finds it more difficult to interact with others. Look for in-groups, out-groups or cliques . Notice whether connections are based on friendship, respect, romance, or something else.
Finally, try to decipher how influence flows between the parties, and whether there are any interpersonal conflicts, or examples of bullying.
3. Build Connections
Now that you know how existing relationships work, you can start to build your own social network.
Look beyond your immediate team, and cross the formal hierarchy in all directions — co-workers, managers and executives. Don’t be afraid of politically powerful people. Instead, get to know them, and build high-quality connections that avoid empty flattery.
Be friendly with everyone, but avoid aligning yourself too closely with one group or another. And, if you’re considering a personal relationship at work , be certain to base it on consent, to avoid any suggestion of illegal or inappropriate influence, and to never break confidentiality.
4. Develop Your “People Skills”
As we’ve seen, politics are all about people, so strong Interpersonal Skills will stand you in good stead when it comes to building and maintaining your network.
Reflect on your emotions, what prompts them, and how you handle them. If you can learn to self-regulate, you’ll be able to think before you act. This kind of emotional intelligence helps you to pick up on other people’s emotions, too, and to understand what kind of approach they like or dislike.
Learn to listen carefully , too. When you invest time in listening, you’ll slow down, focus, and learn. And, people like people who listen to them!
5. Make the Most of Your Network
When you communicate your achievements to your connections, they might open up opportunities to “shine” for you, your team, and your boss. They can also act as a “bridge” between you and other colleagues.
It’s also crucial to be accountable for your actions. This demonstrates your honesty and integrity. So ask for feedback from others who may have a different perspective on your work. This is a good way to find out what’s most important to the people in your network, and it shows that you value their opinions.
6. Be Brave — but Not Naive
Your first instinct may be to keep your distance from people who practice “bad” politics. In fact, the opposite can be more effective. The expression, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” often applies to office politics.
So, get to know the gossips and manipulators better. Be courteous but guarded, as they may repeat what you say with a negative “spin.” Try to understand their goals, so that you can avoid or counter the impact of their negative politicking. And be aware that some people behave badly because they feel insecure — this is a form of self-sabotage .
7. Neutralise Negative Politics
You can help to make a workplace become more positive by not “fuelling the fire” and joining in negative politics.
For example, avoid passing on rumors without taking time to carefully consider their source, credibility and impact. And don’t rely on confidentiality. It’s safer to assume that whatever you say will be repeated, so choose carefully what “secrets” you reveal.
Remain professional at all times, and don’t take sides, or get sucked into arguments or recriminations. When a conflict arises, remember that there doesn’t have to be a winner and a loser. It’s often possible to find a solution that satisfies everyone.
If you’re voicing concerns or criticism of your own, be confident and assertive but not aggressive. And make sure that you take an organizational perspective, and not simply a selfish one.