To say that the Trump administration has launched to a rocky start would be a severe understatement. While battles over policy issues were to be expected, one source of Oval Office tension has been most unusual: the office politics. As leaks continue to pour out of the White House about President Trump’s shifting alliances within his inner circle, the only constant seems to be the lack of job security. His former national security adviser was forced to resign after just a month in office, despite having been in the President’s inner circle throughout the campaign. The calls for his attorney general’s resignation grow ever louder. Key Department of Justice officials, including the former Attorney General and the District Attorney for New York, have been fired. And within the President’s core group of advisers, loyalties are constantly shifting - with all the gory details being leaked to the press.
While such public workplace dysfunction in the Oval Office may be a new phenomenon, office politics usually occupy a different space within companies: no one wants to acknowledge they exist, but there is no office without politics. Yet as progressive companies and new startups continue to tout the advantages of “flat” organizational structures, offices with full transparency, and workplaces that seem to resemble a college dorm lounge more than they do a place of business, the implications tied to office politics grow increasingly negative. The problem? Pretending they don’t exist doesn’t make them go away.
When it comes to mitigating office politics that impede the workday, it probably is best to skip this lesson from our Commander in Chief. Creating an office environment where employees compete for the boss’s loyalty and affection, and are openly hostile to one another, will never make for a navigable workplace. In that regard, nipping office politics in the bud, as Harman International CEO Dinesh Paliwal told The New York Times he does, is essential. Whether it’s seemingly benign gossip or a quick complaint about a coworker, or more serious maneuvering, Paliwal is swift to work with the executive in question to squash the politicking instantly, while also using the moment as a teaching opportunity with the executives in question.
Opportunities like Paliwal’s to quickly course-correct don’t often come that easily though - especially if you’re not the boss. Rather than simply discouraging workplace politics, taking steps to ensure that the politicking is in the best interest of both the company and its employees, while putting the kibosh on politics that devolve into a hostile frenzy, is the strongest way to keep teams united and companies productive, even when employees don’t always see eye to eye.
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When You Need to Stamp Out the Politics
Acknowledge Your Biases
Implicit biases - the kind we don’t notice and often write off as harmless - can have a corrosive effect on companies. Whether it’s noticeably preferential treatment from a manager towards male employees, as was the case at Uber when former employee Susan Fowler published a blog about her experiences in sexism and office politics while working as an engineer for the ride-sharing company, or a benign oversight of gregarious managers unconsciously gravitating towards similarly chatty employees, implicit biases affect everything from the way we act, to whom we interact with, to whom we date.
By being cognizant of their existence, forward thinking managers can pay specific attention to their behavior and track their time and mentorship of employees, to ensure that their attention is equally divided. By being invested in employees as people, rather than simply as coworkers, a direct line of communication is opened up between employees and managers, as well as with each other, which can also help mitigate miscommunications, slights, and other forms of politics.
Focus on the End Goal
By making company goals and team goals crystal clear, employees are more apt to see their job function as a contribution to the team, rather than the daily punching of a clock, where each is on their own. Goals give clarity to teams, as well as purpose. By having clear goals, interoffice politics can become easier to manage, because the ultimate goal of the team is, or should be, bettering their performance overall. “To do this, the best managers recognize the psychological underpinnings of office politics and do two things in response: they manage the way they themselves behave, and they are careful about how they motivate others,” says Columbia University professor Tomaso Chamorro-Premuzic.
Highly ethical managers tend to go further as well, says Chamorro-Premuzic; bosses whose actions line up with their intentions, and who reward employees but also hold them accountable for failure, are the ones most often deemed as apolitical. But to hold employees and yourself accountable, clear organizational goals are a necessity.
Have Employees Track Their Progress
A 2010 study found that autonomy was the second-biggest motivator for office employees. Rather than viewing it as a scattered loosening of the reins, allowing employees autonomy to work on their projects, while having them track their progress via regular feedback, can be a smart way to minimize the impacts of implicit bias. Rather than having managers make judgments of progress across the board, they’re able to track progress as data, and see where weak links can be identified. Even better managers use those weak links not to create team competition, but to identify areas where the team can use more coaching to stay focused on the larger goal.
Focus on Personalities, Motivations, and Variables
Office politics are largely unavoidable because people are largely unpredictable. There is no controlled scenario in which to test out models of conflict management in the workplace, and there is no way to know for certain that everyone has their eyes on the same end goal and little else. Instead, consider paying attention to the personalities, motivations, and variables of your team. Managers who can keenly assess the various personalities of team members can plan for how employees might react to a new project or feedback on a current project.
By paying attention to motivations, a more logical assessment can be derived on how an individual employee might perform on a task, and will give you insight into the best way to communicate with that particular employee. And variables allow for all manner of extenuating circumstances: minimizing unavoidable personality clashes, strengthening weak spots on the team, and so on. Collecting a dossier of information on employees in this regard and using it to only reward work by personal agenda would quickly veer into toxic office politics, but if personality, motivation, and variable assessment is used by managers to better understand their employees, it can lead to happier and more engaged teams.
Photo by Nguyen Hung Vu/Flickr
Be an Advocate
Encourage employees to be vocal about their accomplishments, but recognize that many may still be uncomfortable doing so. For employees who are less reticent to make their progress known, having a proxy at the company who can stick up for them when conversations about promotions or well performed work come up for discussion. Often times, a mentor is the best path to finding a sponsor - and that relationship can turn into one that’s productive on both ends. Mentors should be invested in their mentees’ successes, but also willing to step up to the plate to advocate on their behalf and make sure their accomplishments are seen amongst the organization.
Helping employees to recognize and take ownership of their achievements, big and small, is also a way to keep employees motivated and focused on being a team player. One-on-one sit downs and reviews, therefore, should always have an achievements component, and the manager or employer should be proactive in acknowledging such accomplishments if the employee is slow on the draw.
Rely on the Golden Rule
Ultimately, recognizing that politics are an intrinsic part of any workplace is necessary to be able to manage them. Proactive companies are best served by recognizing that early on, and encouraging managers to take steps from day one that prioritize goals and make teams stronger by focusing on employee success. But even in fraternal organizations, don’t wait for an issue to turn political before issuing a platitude - your employees are adults and they’re likely to ignore it, or resent the issue further. Instead, lead by political example: it’s okay to have your own interests in your sights, but they shouldn’t come at the cost of fellow employees, or the company’s overall goal.