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Some thoughts about office politics

Where’s the threat?

It is hard to separate this kind of advice from economic lessons in running a business, when office politics can threaten a business in ways that are subtle, but sometimes just as devastating as economic shocks or continuing poor management.

Examining the petri dish

Most any office with more than one level of management (more than ten employees) can become a Petri dish for office politics.  It may be human nature to attempt to gain the good graces of one’s superior in the work place.  But it is a perverse form of human nature to do so at the expense of others.  Some employees disrupt a business intentionally in order to gain attention and an advantage over fellow employees.

Personal agendas in the workplace?

Other times, people with personal agendas or personal dislikes of other individuals will disrupt the harmony of an office environment with negative statements, rumors, and damning comments.  We’ve all seen this unhealthy form of human activity in an office environment at one time or another.

Advice to management

[Email readers, continue here… ]   So, here’s the advice:  Never repeat, encourage, or even listen to the personal attacks by one individual against another within the organization.  The first time you join in the conversation instead of stopping it, the first time you nod in agreement, the first time you take a side as a manager –is the last time you rule over an office-politics-free organization.

The power of being a manager

A boss has power that person doesn’t often realize s/he has, when viewed from the lens of a subordinate.  That power becomes perverse when a boss takes a side in any disagreement that is personal as opposed to business-problem oriented.  The result is almost always hurt, frustration and anger from the party on the wrong end of such manager reinforcement, and a loss of work time and certainly good will toward the organization and toward management itself.

How to handle it

To set the example by stopping the personal attack, refocusing the parties on productive work and moving on is to state by your words and actions that you will not tolerate such behavior in the workplace.  To ignore such action when observed is to allow one person or a small group to undermine the organization in subtle steps that can only increase in size and effect.

Worse yet, to take a side in a personal dispute is to reduce your authority and alienate one person or group and reinforce bad behavior.

  • Not sure why this hasn’t come up yet but this stuff often shows up as a “he said/she said complaint” with third hand info thrown in to muddy the waters. My response was (and is) to this day never to have a conversation like this with an employee. My staff would know my immediate response was “I will not engage in a conversation ABOUT another employee” and “so why don’t we all sit down TOGETHER and get a grip on this thing”. I still don’t know if it is the healthiest way of crimping office politics but everyone knew how the matter would be dealt with – only face to face. I now live in a latin culture where face to face is harder to deal with for the employees. But what else is one to do?

  • kim shepherd

    To help stop any temptation towards political infighting, I instituted a “Boo Boo of the Month” contest where mistakes were rewarded. Literally, the worst mistake doer of the month received a Starbuck’s gift card. On one level, my thinking was that people are more likely to retain a story of disaster over one of achievement. On another level, it made it very difficult to tattle tale on a fellow employees if the issue was seen through my lens of positivity. These monthly contests went on for nearly 10 years with remarkable results.

  • Peter

    I had an experience with a previous employer. One member of my team wanted to transfer to a different department. I was fine with it, but wanted to have her transition her important projects over a couple of weeks and make sure nothing cratered. The other manager wanted her to transfer immediately and told me that any disruption was “my problem”.

    I escalated to my management who discussed it at a higher level. The next thing I knew, an email was sent by the division head to about a dozen people asking “is this just Peter being Peter, or is this a real problem”. I would point out this division head was pretty new in his position and had never worked with me. And that I had consistently received top performance reviews for many years.

    After seeing how that manager behaved, it was obvious that I had no future at that company, and left 6 months later. By the way, the division head ran the business into the ground and was terminated about 18 months later.

    I was grateful, because leaving was the best thing I could have done. But having a senior manager play office politics games created a toxic environment that many fled.

  • Clarence Treat

    Very tough subject to address, especially when a person might have a valid complaint. As a Fire Captain, I had few problems within my crew and the subtle approach worked every time that I can remember. Complaints about the other two shifts were usually addressed Captain to Captain, and, again, in every case the situations wereg resolved without escalation of the problem. I think firefighters, however, are a different breed of employees. C

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