It's been a pop-culture trope and corporate stereotype for decades: The big-shot executives sit in meetings and make decisions that benefit them, while low-level workers are left to suffer the consequences. As someone who's held numerous executive leadership positions, entrepreneur David Frankel says this phenomenon boils down to one simple root cause: politics.
"Whenever there is a group of people working together — whether it is two or 2,000 or 20,000 — there is always going to be some level of politics," said Frankel, who currently serves as managing partner of executive consultant firm Slingstone Group. "Everyone comes to the table with their own personal goals, egos, aspirations and agendas, and in order for someone to get what they want, there is always going to be some level of compromise, negotiation and politicking. Where this starts to become problematic is when personal motivations are not aligned with those of the company."
While a bureaucratic, politicized structure is most often associated with larger corporations, startups and small businesses aren't immune from this problem. Politics can infect an organization when the founders, investors and employees don't agree on a company vision, Frankel said. [5 Simple Ways to Become a Better Leader]
"Perhaps there is a difference between founders in strategic vision, or debate about whether to seek outside money or questions from the board regarding commitment to a particular sales strategy," he told Business News Daily. "Maybe some employees feel they aren't getting enough credit, compensation or options for their great work. Without strong leadership, these issues can linger — and people will start to put their own personal gain ahead of that of the company."
How can you tell if workplace politics are dividing your employees? Frankel listed some of the telltale signs of a politicized business environment:
- An individual's personal rewards are not aligned with organizational rewards.
- There is a "system" that needs to be worked, and the best navigators are rewarded.
- Urgency takes a backseat to process, and the stakeholders in the status quo become threatened by change.
- People who do not regularly produce results don't get fired or reprimanded.
- The average employee has reduced knowledge and visibility into decision making.
Other indicators of negative office politics include a perceived distance between lower-level employees and executives, closed-door meetings with exclusive information that isn't discussed with the rest of the organization and "star" employees leaving because they don't see a path to future advancement.
Minimizing politics in a growing organization begins with its leadership, and the best way to accomplish this goal is to encourage transparency and collaboration among team members at all levels. Frankel advised taking the following steps to break down the divisive walls of workplace politics.
Reduce distance from company decisions. As small companies grow and add more structure, policy and management layers, the average employee naturally becomes farther removed from executive leadership on a day-to-day basis. Management teams need to always be mindful that this distance from company decisions is a key factor leading to politics infiltrating even the most successful companies. Promote communication and transparency among teams by holding regular meetings, town halls and group lunches. Make sure everyone knows what the corporate objectives are, and talk openly and honestly about the challenges the company is facing. Trust all employees (not just executives and managers) with information, and make them stakeholders in the success of the company. When leaders trust their team and empower them with insights into company challenges, the team can be an active part of conquering those challenges.
Don't tolerate political behavior. Everyone's success should be measured, first and foremost, by the overall company objectives. When even the hint of "me-first" behavior crops up in a meeting or email, ensure it gets squashed swiftly. The pushing of personal agendas, no matter who participates in it or at what level of the organization it occurs, should not be rewarded. The minute leadership accepts political or bureaucratic behavior, it is an invitation for it to become rampant within the company culture.
- Demand accountability from all team members. Each employee should understand his or her role and how it contributes to the success of the company, and then be expected to deliver. When the company has a big success or reaches a pivotal milestone, it should be recognized both as a team win and a celebration of the success of those whose work contributed to the win at all levels of the organization — not just the senior sales person, head engineer or manager. Likewise, when a mistake or failure occurs, those who contributed to it should be expected to take ownership for their roles (and that includes executive management) so that the mistake can be fixed and not occur again. When employees are willing to be praised for the wins but are afraid to take responsibility for the losses, it shows they are more interested in their own success than the company's, and everyone knows it.
"No matter how committed a leader is, the work environment cannot be completely depoliticized," Frankel noted. "However, executives that make a concerted effort to [be more accessible and transparent] can effectively reduce the impact that politics will have as an obstacle to the company's success."
Originally published on Business News Daily.