Can office politics really hurt?
Lies. Out of control egos. Personal and vicious attacks on colleagues. Lack of loyalty. Lots of effort wasted by people protecting their backs. Fear of making mistakes so strong that no-one dares to try or even suggest something new, much less use initiative. Productivity sacrificed in favour of posturing and game playing. Self-interest brimming over. Integrity scraping the bottom of the barrel. Mediocre results at best.
Managers often ask us for advice about office politics. Is it something that they should worry about or are they a normal part of working life? Do office politics really have a major impact on results?
Our answer: look at what they are named after! The opening paragraph describes the seedy side of politics. Should we tolerate office politics? Well that really depends on whether you want politics (as described above) in the office. My view? No thanks! I find politics disturbing enough without having them intrude upon my workplace.
Can a manager actually do anything about office politics?
When we are asked for office politics advice and the manager receives our candid response (see above), the inevitable next question is "can I actually do anything about it’?" The answer is, absolutely.
Consider political parties and politicians for a moment – there are times when things seem to be more stable, less acrimonious and more appears to get done. Then there are times when they degenerate into a rabble and we shake our heads, embarrassed that these people are considered the leaders of our country.
Why do they swing from one extreme to the other? External events have an influence but the real clue is in the word leader. Not someone in the position of leader but someone who behaves like a leader.
Any manager who is prepared to take a leadership approach to office politics can make a quick and profound difference.
What a manager can’t do
The one thing you can’t do is simply demand people stop. It’s a bit like asking one country to give up its weapons while leaving their mortal enemies fully armed. The very climate that allows office politics to flourish also generates the fear and insecurity that draws everyone into the battle.
Instead of simply expecting your people to stop, follow these five steps and you will start to see significant changes
Step 1: Narrow the scope
Aim to reduce the politics within your own team. It would be nice if you could change the whole organisation but your real influence is with your direct team.
Of course, by focusing on what is within your sphere of control, you actually increase your influence. A positive change in your own team can ripple out to the teams around you.
Step 2: Put down your own weapons
As we have explored in other articles, everything you do as a leader is amplified – it sets the tone for the way things are done around here. Your actions clearly and loudly communicate what sort of standard is acceptable.
As long as you engage in politics yourself, your people will take that as implied approval for their own behaviour. Here are 5 key behaviours to avoid:
- Never criticise a team member to other team members
- Never talk behind someone’s back
- Make sure your motives are transparent – tell people what is motivating or concerning you
- Never tell people different (and conflicting) things
- Never fudge the truth to avoid discomfort
Step 3: Educate your team
Help them understand the cost of office politics – to their morale, their productivity, the organisation and their own careers. Then give them some alternatives – coach them in turning a ‘political conversation’ into a positive one. The difference is often the focus – is it back on past events and interactions or forward on solutions and objectives? Of course, your credibility in coaching these behaviours is much higher if your are setting a high standard for yourself.
When you see someone caught up in politics, sit down with them and have a respectful discussion. Some key things to talk about:
What is concerning them that makes the politics necessary?
- How could they deal with that in a more constructive way?
- Have they got the skills to do that?
- What support do they need from you?
For example, instead of ‘bitching’ about what someone has done or said, help them develop the skills and confidence to have an honest and respectful conversation with that person.
Step 4: Be prepared to confront the issue and guide the people
Your people aren’t perfect – there are times when they will let standards drop and they may not have the skills to deal with it appropriately. Instead of letting is slip by, be prepared to name up the issue – rather than than allowing it to be a sinister undercurrent, get it out in the open.
Of course, as you do this you will need to be prepared to facilitate discussions between team members that are focused on resolving issues and not on personalities.
Step 5: Never wrestle with pigs!
As you raise the standards within your team, there will be people beyond the team who still engage in the politics. This can be really confronting – when your team members feel that they are under attack, they will want to defend or attack back.
In this case, attack is not the best form of defence. Maintaining your own standards is much more effective. When people see you aren’t going to engage in the office politics, they see you as less threatening and have less need to engage in politics with you.
One of our favourite quotes is from George Bernard Shaw: "I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it." Encourage your team to hold themselves to a high standard even if their ego is screaming at them to get into battle.
Of course, we have all been the pig at some time – and actually referring to people who are trying to engage you in politics as pigs probably won’t help either!
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Editor's note: This blog was originally published on June 2014 and has been revamped and updated for comprehensiveness and better readability.