How to thrive among enemies
Up to what point is your work environment political?
By Angela Civitella
In war you can only be killed once, but in politics many times.
Everyone has an agenda in the workplace. Whether people are aiming for a promotion, attempting to win a big project, trying to impress their boss, or looking to move departments, their actions often have an underlying purpose.
These motivations can lead to healthy, professional networking and communication, but they may also cause power struggles, competition and alliance making that upset everyone within a team.
In this article, we’ll discuss how you can identify this type of office politics, and we’ll explore ways to avoid its negative influence.
What are office politics?
Office politics can be defined as the use of underhand methods to gain advantage in the workplace. People do this to achieve their goals, gain prestige, or seek greater influence, so that they can persuade others to share their viewpoint, access assistance or resources, or get ahead in their careers.
We all need to build good relationships in the workplace. For example, the more connections you can build with stakeholders and senior leaders, the more likely you are to succeed. And, engaging with leaders rather than staying on the sidelines means that you increase your visibility and ability to accomplish your goals.
However, this can cross over into office politics when people participate in destructive behaviours to influence others, and it can have a number of harmful consequences.
‘Office politics can be defined as the use of underhand methods to gain advantage in the workplace.’
Instead of relying on positive relationship-building techniques, such as persuasion and networking, individuals use damaging and unethical actions like manipulation, corruption, backbiting, or infighting. This can cause people to become frustrated at perceived inequities, damage team morale, and result in stress and burnout.
What Is a “highly political” organization?
Professor Kathleen Kelley Reardon identified four types of political organizations, and published her findings in the January 2015 Harvard Business Review.
These types of organizations are:
Minimally political: leaders ensure that rules, expectations and promotion standards are clear and followed. Office camaraderie is strong, and no one engages in underhanded political acts.
Moderately political: these organizations are generally rules-driven, and any political activity is low-key. People engage as a team, and few conflicts occur.
Highly political: powerful individuals manipulate the rules to their advantage, at their own convenience. As a result, whom you know is more important than what you know. Cliques are common, and there’s usually a clear division between people who are part of the “inner circle” and those who are not.
Pathologically political: this environment is marked by distrust. People achieve goals by circumventing normal channels and procedures, and by relying on personal connections. In these organizations, people focus less on work and more on protecting themselves, and seeking advantage.
‘Cliques are common, and there’s usually a clear division between people who are part of the “inner circle” and those who are not.’
Highly and pathologically politicized organizations and teams are likely to demonstrate the following:
Friction: relationships between team members and departments are contentious, curt or nonexistent.
Deceit: people may discredit others to make themselves look better.
Gossip: conversations frequently involve discussions about people who aren’t present, rather than focusing on legitimate business issues.
Silos: political organizations often have team members, or even whole departments, who attempt to get ahead by withholding information or resources from others.
Rivalry: people are jealous of colleagues and are interested in personal wins, rather than in the organization’s success.
Power plays: people use their connections to get ahead, regardless of their skills or experience.
Blame culture: people are reluctant to take responsibility for their shortcomings, and shift the blame to others instead.
Manipulation: people achieve their goals by indirect means, such as coercion, often at the expense of others.
Many of these characteristics reflect absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of team accountability, and inattention to team objectives. They also resemble the unhealthy characteristics such as “recrimination” stage, people often assign blame instead of fixing problems, focus on their survival to the detriment of their work, and spread unhealthy gossip. Although many organizations linger here, this stage often precedes “corporate death”.
‘Many of these characteristics reflect absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of team accountability, and inattention to team objectives.’
How to survive in a political organization
So, how can you defend yourself in a political workplace and ensure that you and your team members survive office politics? Here are seven strategies that you can use:
1. Set a good example
Make sure you “walk the talk” and demonstrate positive behaviour. Communicate consistently and transparently, encourage good teamwork, reward good behaviour, give feedback on poor behaviour, listen, build trust, behave in an emotionally intelligent way, and seek “win-win” results in all your interactions.
2. Avoid gossip
Spreading rumours and sharing intimate details about your colleagues’ personal lives will rebound on you. When people find out that you’ve disclosed information about them, you’ll damage your reputation, lose credibility, and destroy their trust in you – something it can be difficult to recover from. Deal with gossip immediately to avoid malicious rumours spreading.
Talk to the people involved to establish the truth, and make sure that you lead by example, and not engage in gossiping yourself.
3. Combat bullying
This type of behaviour is unacceptable in any situation. Unfortunately, however, it is common in the workplace. If you’re a victim, or suspect that a team member is suffering, read and apply your organization’s anti-bullying policy. Record the specifics of incidents, and consider taking formal action.
‘… job titles don’t necessarily reflect power. Instead, it’s often based upon a person’s ability to influence others.’
4. Focus on your goals
Avoid taking sides when conflict arises, and concentrate on your objectives rather than on the opposing viewpoints. After all, everyone should agree on the ultimate goal, that is, ensuring that the team or organization succeeds.
5. Identify stakeholders
Who holds power and influence in your organization? Identifying and strengthening your ties with stakeholders gives you greater insight, and it allows you to navigate these complicated relationships successfully. Remember, job titles don’t necessarily reflect power. Instead, it’s often based upon a person’s ability to influence others.
6. Develop alliances
It’s important to find allies at work who can support you, give you advice, and even provide friendship. So, avoid focusing exclusively on your work and ignoring opportunities to build relationships with others. You can create lasting alliances by networking with others at various levels in your organization. Also, find a mentor who can show you how to steer clear of potential problems and help you improve your connections.
7. Keep written records
If a conflict arises that requires intervention from human resources or your supervisor, make sure that you have documentation to support your position. For example, keep track of your ideas, suggestions and accomplishments by recording them in a time-stamped e-mail, and if you’re having trouble with people, keep careful notes on specific incidents.
Team spirit, team recognition, support for one another, mentoring the weaker elements, all these go to the strengthen your work environment, stimulate growth, forge deepening relationships, that in the end, serve not only you, but the greater good that you work in. Remember, always look for the “win-win”.
Read also: Are you living life at its best?
Angela Civitella, a certified management business coach with more than 20 years of proven ability as a negotiator, strategist, and problem-solver, creates sound and solid synergies with those in quest of improving their leadership and team building skills. You can reach Angela at 514 254-2400 • linkedin.com/in/angelacivitella/ • intinde.com • @intinde