One of the most influential dynamics in the work environment is office politics. How employees interact in response to perceived power and authority can have an affect on whether a workplace is positive and cooperative or negative and disruptive.
If you think you can solve this problem by ignoring office politics at your company, think again. Unless you're a one-person show, you can't escape office politics, believes Eric Termuende, a professional speaker and author of Rethink Work.
"Politics are always going to be present in the workplace, due to the structure of business in the Western world," says Termuende. “There will be varying opinions and decisions that are made by higher-ranking people that aren't always agreed upon by others in the company."
Office politics are controlled and even eliminated with trust. You build trust by focusing on communication.
—Gary Peterson, CEO, Gap Intelligence
Aaron Mannella, founder of Pediatric Dental Associates of Randolph, finds that office politics routinely becomes an issue at his practice.
“Any organization that functions with some sort of hierarchy will probably be exposed to office politics," says Mannella. “As in many offices, politics come into play when an employee, or group of employees with differing job responsibilities, put the needs of their positions above those of co-workers."
Office Politics' Negative Connotation
Often when people complain about their jobs, it's not their work that's troubling them. More often than not, they're having difficulty with other employees or with management.
Complaints about power struggles and employees sabotaging one another are common. Obviously, none of this is good for the work environment.
“For me, the term 'office politics' has a negative connotation," says Gary Peterson, CEO of Gap Intelligence, a market intelligence company. “People play politics to hoard power for job security or jockey for position to get a raise or promotion."
Office politics aren't a positive influence, agrees business advisor and coach, Mark Green, author of Activators: A CEO's Guide to Clearer Thinking and Getting Things Done.
“Political behaviors promote one's self and ideas, typically at the expense of others," says Green. “Office politics destroy trust, which is at the root of the effectiveness—or dysfunction—of any team. Healthy cultures discourage political behaviors and encourage cooperation."
Office Politics Starts at the Top
Though the political back and forth might play out amongst employees, the seeds of dissent or cooperation are planted by owners and managers.
“Every organization has a culture, whether by design or default, and all roads lead to the leader as its ultimate 'creator,'" says Green. “The leadership habits I see in CEOs who cultivate default—and typically dysfunctional—cultures are denial of reality, a need to be liked and tolerating low performers."
“Politics often start from the top down, because that is typically where the decisions are made," adds Termuende. “These decisions trickle down. By the time they make it to the front lines, not only have an increasing number of people had time to formulate an opinion on the decision that was made, they also likely know less and less about how and why that decision was made."
Not knowing why a decision was made can cause office politics turmoil, which is why Termuende suggests that company leaders explain how they came to decisions.
“The key to managing politics in the workplace is increased transparency around why decisions are made," he says. “Dissent in the workplace isn't a negative if there is trust amongst co-workers and leaders. The best way to build trust—and then manage politics as a result—is to effectively communicate and make people heard."
Problems quickly multiply if company leaders allow, or even worse, encourage negative office politic behaviors, adds Mannella.
“As a leader if you display these tendencies, you're giving your approval for that behavior to continue," he says.
How to Ensure Healthy Office Politics
Since you can't avoid office politics, it makes sense to ensure that interactions are as healthy as possible.
“At the end of the day, we all want to feel like we belong," says Termuende. “It is important that we are aware of why a decision is being made, we trust our teams and [we] can have healthy conflict in the workplace without hurting people along the way.
"If we can do this and ensure the conversation is in the interest of growth and development," he continues, "politics can be managed, and even act as a good thing in the workplace."
Here are some suggestions for encouraging healthy office politics.
“Office politics are controlled and even eliminated with trust. You build trust by focusing on communication," says Peterson. “As a leader, you must ensure that everyone knows where the company is going, how you'll get there and what values will get you there."
2. Be transparent.
“There should never be a time when an employee doesn't know exactly how he or she is doing and where the employee is going within your company," says Peterson. “When employees don't know that, they turn to office politics."
3. Be objective.
Rather than take any sides, Mannella advises business owners to remain impartial.
“An owner needs to be objective, mild-mannered and almost sterile with employees," he says. “Think of yourself as a mediator who cannot—and should not—have skin in the game. Avoid playing into seniority, pay-grade or merit qualifiers. Be fair, consistent and articulate in your reasoning."
4. Aim for the greater good.
“High-performing organizations have trust and psychologically safe and collaborative cultures," says Green. “Such companies operate as meritocracies, where ideas best for the team and the organization's mission win—even at the occasional expense of the goals and plans of individuals, groups or divisions."
5. Focus on clients and customers.
“When we take a step back and focus on what is best for our patients, it is easier to resolve differences and bring everyone together with a solution that is patient focused," says Mannella. “We remind employees about the cohesion we are striving for in regards to our clientele."
Read more articles on company culture.
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