The Only Way to Manage Workplace Politics
Here's someone you can blame
On the frustration and damages caused by workplace politics and what can be done about it.
This piece is for you, who cannot deal with this non-sense anymore.
Maybe your ideas got rejected because you didn’t give enough credit to your boss, maybe you are investing half of your time at work filling in administrative paperwork. Maybe you have a brilliant idea, but they are not giving you permission to move forward because it might put some high-ranked managers in a bad light.
You are sick of the ego struggles, of the two-layered conversations, of the horrible decision-making processes in your organization. And you know what is the toxic dynamic behind it: politics. Workplace politics. People putting their egos and suspicions before the company’s best interest. Who allow their personal interests to mud the rational, professional decision-making processes in the organization.
I usually recommend a zero-tolerance policy with regards to this kind of professionals. They shouldn’t be a part of any organization, at least not until they learn how to behave professionally. Having said that — there is a value in understanding the dynamics behind office politics and it can help neutralize some of its effects.
When we try to understand the nature of workplace politics, we realize that they usually do not lead to total anarchy within the company. We are not talking about organizations where anything can happen and everything is acceptable, just because of some people with a bloated ego.
We usually refer to a set of interests and norms (saying or not saying certain things; only criticizing or praising specific people or projects; etc) that most team member have to respect in order to succeed in their job. Specific people usually have the necessary status to enstablish the norms which serve their interests; their status might derive from their job title (C-suite privilege) or from their behavior (aggressive, uncooperative professionals). Bonnie Marcus describes the phenomenon in this Forbes article and points at the Rules and the Culture: everyone needs to respect the rules dictated by these people, or their future efforts will be undermined; and that is why the whole organizational culture is affected. If people are not allowed to critique a department because they are afraid of annoying its Head and suffer the consequences, there is no hope to foster a culture of transparency in the organization.
Robert Sutton probably wrote the most on-point, provocative book about the matter. The main insight I learned from the book is the following:
Workplace politics are a function of bad management. It is never a personal matter between two colleagues — it’s an exaggerated degree of tolerance on the management’s side towards toxic components in the organization.
That’s it. Managers, and senior managers in particular, have the power to fix the problem — or making it chronic. Managers are those who can tolerate the bad behaviors, the aggressions, the discrimination and shaming between colleagues who should work together on a shared goal. But they can also provide the right feedback to those disturbing high-status professionals in the organization and mentor them into adopting healthier behaviors. They can reward or punish the wrong reactions and decisions, and by consistently doing so, convey what their expectations are and what are the sanctions for missing them. They can eventually get rid of those who won’t adapt.
It is very difficult to shape a workplace with no politics whatsoever — that would mean also killing the personal relationships, the passionate discussions and the ambition of many of the team members. The healthy side of workplace politics can be the constant striving for accurate decision making and high-level performance. Not for the sake of gaining a higher status within the organization, but for advancing the company’s goals and contributing to everyone’s success. It’s the manager’s duty to keep track of those team members who might be disruptive to the process for personal reasons, and intervene to help them develop into better professionals.