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Updated Oct 24, 2023

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

Office politics can divide colleagues, supervisors and subordinates, which, in turn, may create a tense and disruptive work environment.

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Skye Schooley, Business Operations Insider and Senior Lead Analyst
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The success of your business relies heavily on the efforts of your employees, making it necessary to maintain employee satisfaction throughout the company. Workplace politics can interfere with that. When employees put their own interests ahead of others’, it can leave everyone feeling upset and unmotivated. Worse yet, it can lead to biased, unwarranted employee firings. However, not all types of employee politics are bad.

Although it may be easy for top-level executives to make decisions that benefit themselves, it’s leaders’ responsibility to minimize negative workplace politics and ensure that each decision benefits the company as a whole. Here’s a guide to spotting workplace politics, combating its bad sides and embracing its good parts.

>> Read next: Are You Using Buzzwords Your Employees Are Sick of Hearing?

What is workplace politics?

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

“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, he noted that 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,” Frankel said. “Where this starts to become problematic is when personal motivations are not aligned with those of the company.”

Key TakeawayKey takeaway
Workplace politics are inevitable, and they can be both positive and negative. It's a leader's job to manage these dynamics. Learn how to become a better leader.

How office politics affect the workplace

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.

“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,” Frankel said. “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.”

When negative office politics begin to fester in the workplace, your organization can suffer. Office politics can divide colleagues, supervisors and subordinates, which, in turn, may create a tense and disruptive work environment. Additionally, it can decrease employee performance, productivity and company morale. If workplace politics are left unresolved, they are likely to increase employee turnover and damage your business’s reputation. Depending on how severe the behavior is, it may even have legal and financial ramifications.

To avoid these potential consequences, it is crucial to quickly identify negative political behavior and to fairly enforce disciplinary action as needed. It is also essential to ensure that first-time managers know how to recognize and handle negative office politics and how to celebrate and reward positive influence. 

Notably, when employees engage in positive political behavior, it has the opposite effect on your organization. For example, if employees perform good deeds and help one another, workplace politics can be an advantage because it can help build interpersonal relationships, improve efficiency and conduct, and elicit positive change. Positive political behavior can ultimately improve company morale and boost employee retention.

Did You Know?Did you know
Research cited by Bloomberg says that half of U.S. workers surveyed find "the negative effects of office politics have stayed the same in the COVID era," even as more people are working remotely and aren't in the physical office.

Examples of office politics

Pete Sosnowski, head of HR and co-founder of resume-building site Zety, defined political behavior in the 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. 

The following examples illustrate office behavior that can be viewed negatively or positively; the former could lead to termination, while the latter could spark praise.

Negative political behavior

Negative political behavior 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.”

Negative political behavior can include these actions:

  • Backstabbing a colleague
  • Blackmailing a colleague
  • Forming malicious alliances against other colleagues
  • Gossiping or spreading rumors about others
  • Intentionally withholding important information

Positive political behavior

Although office politics often involves negative behaviors, it is possible to engage in positive political behavior.

“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,” Chancey said.

Positive political behavior can include the following actions:

  • Volunteering
  • Presenting a professional image
  • Complimenting and recognizing others

How to tell if your business environment is politicized

If workplace politics are dividing your organization, it is vital to take notice and identify the root cause to ultimately remove the negativity. Frankel listed five telltale signs of a negatively 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 current stakeholders 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.

TipTip
The more open your lines of communication from the C suite to the ground floor are, the less likely it is that negative office politics will occur. Consider launching channels within your team communication software platform where everyone in your organization can stay up to date and connected.

How leaders can fix workplace politics

The culture and political environment of your company starts with your top executives. Leaders should display appropriate political behaviors to model good behavior for the rest of the company.

According to Chancey, a supervisor should exhibit the following ethical behaviors to reduce negative politics at work:

  • Do what is right not just for your team but for the whole organization.
  • 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, as distance often leads to negative power dynamics.

In addition to demonstrating positive behaviors for the organization, leaders are responsible for investigating the reasons behind negative office politics.

“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,” Sosnowski said.

To prevent negative political behavior, develop a set of company values — like transparency, impact and communication — and then hire employees who embody those values, Sosnowski suggested. Additionally, he said it is essential to create and adhere to clear organizational structures for bonuses, promotions and reprimands.

“Let your employees know what their options are, what is achievable for them and how to get there,” Sosnowski said. “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.”

How to avoid workplace politics in your organization

Minimizing negative workplace 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 from the top down. Frankel advised taking the following steps to break down the divisive walls of negative politics at work — or to prevent them from taking root in the first place.

1. Reduce distance from company decisions.

As small companies grow and add more structure, policies and management layers, the average employee naturally becomes more 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 that infiltrates even the most successful enterprises.

Promote communication and transparency among teams by holding regular meetings, town halls and group lunches. Make sure everyone knows the corporate objectives, and talk openly and honestly about the challenges the company is facing. Trust all team members — not just executives and managers — with information, and make them stakeholders in the success of the business. When leaders trust their team members and empower them with insight into the company’s challenges, everyone can take an active part in conquering them.

2. Don’t tolerate negative political behavior.

Everyone’s success should be measured, first and foremost, by the overall company objectives. When even a 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 negative political or bureaucratic behavior, it is an invitation for it to run rampant within the company culture.

3. Demand accountability from all team members.

Each employee should understand their role and how it contributes to the success of the organization and then be expected to deliver on their responsibilities. When the company has a big success or reaches a milestone, it should be recognized both as a team win and as a celebration of the success of those who 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 — including executive management — should be expected to take ownership for the part they played so the mistake can be fixed and not happen 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.

“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.” 

Squashing — and embracing — workplace politics

Some form of workplace politics is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be a negative influence at your company. Leaders can help avoid negative workplace politics by being transparent, holding themselves and employees accountable, and modeling positive behavior. When office politics are positive, the workplace can be a place where team members at all levels of the organization thrive both individually and as a team and improve the company as a whole.

Max Freedman and Nicole Fallon contributed to this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version. 

author image
Skye Schooley, Business Operations Insider and Senior Lead Analyst
Skye Schooley is a business expert with a passion for all things human resources and digital marketing. She's spent 10 years working with clients on employee recruitment and customer acquisition, ensuring companies and small business owners are equipped with the information they need to find the right talent and market their services. In recent years, Schooley has largely focused on analyzing HR software products and other human resources solutions to lead businesses to the right tools for managing personnel responsibilities and maintaining strong company cultures. Schooley, who holds a degree in business communications, excels at breaking down complex topics into reader-friendly guides and enjoys interviewing business consultants for new insights. Her work has appeared in a variety of formats, including long-form videos, YouTube Shorts and newsletter segments.
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