Whether you work in a fast-food outlet or as an executive in a multinational, chances are you will encounter organizational politics. This issue often gets a bad rap. Most of us automatically think of backstabbing, brown-nosing and self-serving schmoozing. We can all recount tales of bootlickers being leapfrogged for promotion or colleagues taking credit for the work of others.
Another example is alliances of staff pushing through unpopular internal restructures. And what about employees who sabotage the work of others. Sounds familiar, right?
Indeed, research confirms there seems to be no escape from office politics. For example, Business News Daily reports on one survey where 55 percent of workers said they got involved in organizational politics to some extent. And 76 percent of respondents said office politics affected their ability to get ahead.
But if organizational politics are an inevitable part of the workplace, do they always have to be a destructive distraction? Or can there be some positives?
What matters is how you handle the office politics that undoubtedly exist in your company.
In this post, we take you through all you need to know about organizational politics. We will look at definitions and the reasons behind workplace politics and the potential for destruction. And we will also show you how to manage workplace politics and turn it into a more positive influence.
Definition Of Organizational Politics
Merriam-Webster defines office politics as follows and tellingly includes the by-line ‘often disapproving’:
The activities, attitudes, or behaviors that are used to get or keep power or an advantage within a business or company.
Harvard Business Review’s definition of organizational politics is more measured as follows:
Organizational politics refers to a variety of activities associated with the use of influence tactics to improve personal or organizational interests.
Organizational Politics: Good Or Bad For Business?
Organizational politics can indeed be a destructive force within businesses. It can easily distract employees from the job at hand and lead to resentment and low team morale. A decrease in job performance and productivity are usually the inevitable consequence. And business leaders often waste lots of time managing office politics.
However, as HBR hints, it’s not all bad. Internal politicking used effectively can assist in finding compromises to tricky workplace situations and problems. It can also help in executing a strategy. Plus, office politics can be a valuable tool to effect organizational change.
Reasons For Organizational Politics
So, what are the causes of office politics? Before you can work out how to manage organizational politics, it’s essential to understand the reasons why it occurs.
The bottom line is that some individuals in the workplace have more authority and power than others. It’s an unequal playing field that is ripe for politicking.
Furthermore, some people are naturally more politically savvy than others. And they are not afraid to use these skills to their advantage as a means of getting ahead of others.
Competition for scarce resources is often at the heart of office politics. Whether it’s time, budget, or supplies, this competition makes corporate politics inevitable.
Aside from these general reasons are more specific situations that often stoke the fires of workplace politics. Here’s a selection of the most common underlying causes.
Internal power struggles are perhaps the number one reason behind organizational politics. Some employees will indulge in office politics to get ahead and prove their worth. Often, it’s at the expense of others. Sabotage, fault-finding, or playing the blame game are the resulting behaviors.
Inability To Adjust To Change
Change is an inevitable part of every business. However, some of us are better than others at adjusting and adapting to change. And when there are winners and losers involved, then resentments can boil over into workplace politics.
Lack Of Clarity
Often misunderstanding and a lack of clarity generate organizational politics. When there’s ambiguity, the rumor mill kicks in with full force. Accusations, incorrect assumptions, and feelings of unfairness lead to office politics.
Perceptions of favoritism, schmoozing, underappreciation, and power imbalances make for a toxic cocktail. And it often results in manipulation, maneuvering, and infighting through office politics.
Lack Of Trust
Whether it’s between colleagues or directed at management, a lack of trust is a powerful driving force for organizational politics.
Many companies offer some form of reward system to encourage employees to go the extra mile. It could be a promotion, bonus or a company car. However, it can backfire if competition becomes unhealthy. Some workers may indulge in organizational politics to ensure they get the reward rather than a colleague.
Strategies For Managing Organizational Politics
Worried that workplace politics in your business may have gone into overdrive? The good news is there are steps you can take. So, if organizational politics have tipped over into being destructive rather than constructive, use these strategies to redress the balance.
1. Reduce Uncertainty In The Workplace
As we have seen, a lack of clarity and access to information is a major cause of organizational politics. Reducing uncertainty in the workplace will help you meet this problem head-on.
Ensure every employee has equal access to information. The company intranet is the perfect place to start. As a central hub for all corporate data, policies, news, and updates, the intranet levels the information playing field.
2. Promote Collaborative Working
Tackle problems of mistrust, petty jealousies, and departmental silos with collaborative working. Cross-team collaboration increases understanding and promotes better personal relationships between workers. And with competition for internal resources a key driver in organizational politics, collaboration helps soften any unhealthy competitive tendencies.
3. Keep Your Ear To The Ground
Just as politicians need to keep in touch with voters, managers need to stay in tune with employees. What’s the prevailing mood among your staff? One way to find out is in regular one-to-one meetings. Check in with your team members on morale or any concerns. And have an open-door policy so that staff feel able to come to you with issues. In addition, develop a wide network of strong relationships within the business, so you have access to a variety of opinions.
Another way to check in with staff is via a survey. An annual employee engagement survey will help you track trends and opinions over time. However, a pulse survey is more effective in this context. Short, sharp and snappy, pulse surveys give you quick feedback. And they will help you to nip any problems in the bud.
And be sure to keep the pulse survey anonymous. That way, employees can give you honest feedback without fear of repercussions.
4. Be A Good Role Model
Employees get a lot of their behavioral cues from management. They learn about company culture and acceptable behaviors from the top. And so it’s critical, managers are good role models for staff.
As a manager, try not to indulge in workplace politics yourself. Instead, display a positive attitude, avoid office gossip, and never criticize employees’ work in front of others. Instead, promote teamwork and collaboration as an antidote to negative office politics.
5. Be Transparent
Transparency is another crucial tool to head off workplace politics. For example, if you do have reward systems in place, be open and transparent about the criteria. Clarity and openness will go a long way to diffusing the misconceptions that fuel office politics.
Plus, be sure to delegate tasks and responsibilities based on experience and expertise. Not only will this lead to greater job satisfaction for workers, but it will eliminate any excuse to indulge in organizational politics.
6. Don’t Have Favorites
Every manager wants to ensure top-performing workers are recognized. It makes sense for the organization to retain its best people. However, this should not be done at the expense of others as it will only spur resentment.
In the workplace, perceptions matter. If you pull up one staff member for being late to a meeting, then you cannot ignore similar behavior in your closest ally. And if you allow your deputy to work from home, then you should give others the same opportunity. Giving preferential treatment to some and not others can easily backfire.
7. Zero Tolerance Of Destructive Organizational Politics
Have a zero-tolerance policy for all destructive workplace politics. Make it clear that behaviors such as backstabbing, sabotage, and lobbying are not tolerated or rewarded. Furthermore, unfair practices such as favoritism and preferential treatment are also off-limits.
8. Intervene When Necessary
Finally, don’t be afraid to step in if required. However, carefully pick your battles. You don’t want to get involved in every minor squabble. But sometimes intervention is the only solution as turning a blind eye can easily see the situation run away from you.
It may be that one person is the source of friction. Or perhaps there’s a widespread feeling of discontent that’s fueling workplace politics. Hold a meeting with the individual or gather all parties together to resolve the underlying cause.
Organizational Politics Meetings
Here are some tips to help you prepare for meetings to manage office politics.
Attentive listening is a valuable technique as it leads to understanding. If the other party feels that you understand where they are coming from, they will be less defensive. And they will be more open to understanding you in return. Open communications will help you arrive at a solution that’s acceptable to all parties.
Focus On The Organization’s Priorities
When approaching any sort of conflict in the workplace, be guided by the organization’s priorities. What is it that you are trying to achieve as a business? When feelings are running high, the objectivity of company goals can help diffuse conflict. And it provides a common framework for finding solutions.
Don’t Take Sides
If two or more individuals are involved, then maintain impartiality. Don’t get drawn into taking sides. Instead, introduce some objectivity by focusing on organizational goals and objectives. That way, you will channel the negativity in a more positive, objective direction.
Look For Win-win Solutions
Conflicts of interest are usually at the heart of organizational politics. When seeking solutions, the most effective and enduring are those that include wins for all parties. Rather than one side coming away with the perception of being a loser, seek a resolution that benefits all parties. That way, everyone will feel positive and can commit to making it happen.
Organizational Politics: Final Thoughts
Office politics is an inevitable part of the workplace; however, it’s not always the destructive force that we might think. If left unchecked, it can create a negative environment, poor team morale, and decreased productivity. However, it can also be a positive influence helping to achieve company goals, especially when managing change programs.
To minimize the negative impacts, keep your finger on the pulse, be open and transparent, and promote collaborative working.
Go to the MyHub blog for more insights on a host of organizational issues facing businesses just like yours. From internal communications to employee engagement and remote working, we have help and advice on all the big issues.