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Are Workplace Politics Destroying Your Business? Here's How to Fix It

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MangoStar_Studio / Getty Images
  • Workplace politics are the manifestation of power dynamics among co-workers.
  • Although workplace politics are inevitable, they can be overcome with proper leadership and influence.
  • Avoid politics in the workplace by reducing distance from company decisions, demanding accountability from all team members and reprimanding political behavior. 

The success of your business relies heavily on the efforts of your employees, making it important to maintain employee satisfaction throughout the company. Although it may be easy for the top-level executives of your company to make decisions that benefit themselves, your responsibility as a leader is to minimize workplace politics and ensure that each decision benefits the company as a whole. 

Chris Chancey, founder of staffing agency Amplio Recruiting, said that workplace politics is the manifestation of power dynamics among co-workers.

"People leverage these power dynamics to further their own interests or that of a group they are affiliated with," Chancey told Business News Daily. "Such behavior is inevitable, given that human beings are naturally political and will do whatever it takes to protect their own interests." 

David Frankel, managing partner of executive consultant firm Slingstone Group, agreed that there will always be some form of politics in the workplace; however, workplace politics can be positive or negative. Your responsibility as a leader is to avoid and overcome the negative political behavior in your workplace.

"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," said Frankel. "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 to this problem. According to Frankel, politics can infect an organization when the founders, investors and employees don't agree on a company vision. [Read related article: 10 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," said Frankel. "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."

Pete Sosnowski, head of HR and co-founder at resume-building site Zety, defined political behavior in a workplace as engaging in behind-the-scenes maneuvers to achieve a personal goal within the organization. He added that workplace politics can make or break your career.

Chancey gave examples of both positive and negative political behavior you may experience in the workplace.

"An example of positive political behavior is identifying and aligning yourself with key influencers with the goal of leveraging their influence for career development without compromising your values or that of the organization," he said. "Negative political behavior is the opposite. It is playing dirty at the expense of someone else – for example, watching a colleague make a mistake on a project and then turning around to report them to your boss and offering to correct the error."

If workplace politics are dividing your organization, it is important to take notice and identify the root cause. There are several warning signs that your organization may need some structural changes.

Frankel listed five of the telltale signs of a politicized business environment:

  1. An individual's personal rewards do not align with organizational rewards.
  2. There is a "system" that needs to be worked, and the best navigators are rewarded.
  3. Urgency takes a back seat to process, and the stakeholders in the status quo become threatened by change.
  4. People who do not regularly produce results don't get fired or reprimanded.
  5. The average employee has little knowledge of and visibility into the company's 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 advancement.

The culture and political environment of your company starts with your top executives. Supervisors should display appropriate political behaviors to influence good behavior in the rest of the company.

According to Chancey, a supervisor should display several behaviors to reduce negative politics at work: 

  • Do what is right not just for your team, but for the organization too.
  • Network, align and build strong relationships across the organization, as opposed to being avoidant or cliquish.
  • Institute firm policies that support open feedback.
  • Stop negative political behaviors in their tracks.
  • Don't engage in office gossip.
  • Don't isolate yourself from employees (distance often leads to negative power dynamics).

In addition to representing positive behaviors for the organization, supervisors are responsible for investigating the reasons behind negative political behaviors taking place.

"Such behaviors can be caused by ill-functioning work structures or unfair treatment, but they may also be initiated by individuals that aspire to achieve something beyond their authority, lack social skills or simply cannot comply with the company's ground rules," said Sosnowski.  

To stop political behavior before it starts, Sosnowski suggested coming up with a set of company values – like transparency, impact and communication – and then hiring employees who embody those values. Additionally, he said it is extremely important to create and adhere to clear organizational structures for bonuses, promotions, reprimands and so on.

"Let your employees know what their options are, what is achievable for them and how to get there," said Sosnowski. "Establish clear paths they should take to achieve their goals. Teach the employees the ways to build healthy relationships and how to respect others and be respected. Once positive behaviors are encouraged and fair solutions provided, employees should not feel the need to engage in competitive or unfair practices." 

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 negative politics at work.

As small companies grow and add more structure, policies, and management layers, the average employee naturally becomes further removed from executive leadership on a day-to-day basis. Management teams need to be mindful that this distance from company decisions is a key factor in 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 take an active part in conquering those challenges.

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, should not be rewarded. The minute leadership accepts political or bureaucratic behavior, it is an invitation for it to run rampant within the company culture.

Each employee should understand their 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 milestone, it should be recognized both as a team win and a celebration of the success of those whose work contributed to it at all levels of the organization – not just the senior salesperson, 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 afraid to take responsibility for the losses, it shows they are more interested in their own success than the company's.

"No matter how committed a leader is, the work environment cannot be completely depoliticized," Frankel said. "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."

Additional reporting by Nicole Fallon. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Skye Schooley

Skye Schooley is an Arizona native, based in New York City. After receiving a business communication degree from Arizona State University, she spent nearly three years living in four states and backpacking through 16 countries. During her travels, Skye began her blog, which you can find at www.skyeschooley.com. She finally settled down in the Northeast, writing for business.com and Business News Daily. She primarily contributes articles about business technology and the workplace, and reviews remote PC access software and collection agencies.

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