The Outside Looking In
I have a set weekly coffee date with some colleagues; two who work full-time and one works part-time and me, a consultant who works piecemeal and interim. I was preparing for this article and so I asked them what was the hot topic at their office. Each of them replied that office politics and people not doing their own work but complaining about others was the main topic of concern. I replied that the benefit of working as a consultant was limited office politics as I am an outsider looking in. Consultants aren’t involved in office politics and their role can be to stand on the edge of the organization, look at the issues and clarify the needed fix or fixes. Their question was how to reduce or eliminate office politics in their workplaces.
Simply put, office politics are strategies used to gain power or advantage over another. Some people revile in office politics and others think it is simply vile, but it is a fact of life in any organization and the issue is growing. Roffey Park’s “Management Agenda” survey found that organizational politics ranked bottom by managers in a list of demotivators in 1998, while today it has risen above the issues of increased workload and management style to be the highest causes of stress. Additionally, the survey of almost 500 managers revealed that conflict in the workplace has also increased, with four out of ten (44 per cent) believing that office politics are the main cause of this increase.
Office politics are inevitable for these reasons:
- Some people have more power than others, either through hierarchy or some other basis of influence.
- For many people, gaining promotion is important, and this can create competition between individuals, or misalignment between the team’s objectives and those of individuals within it.
- Most people care passionately about decisions at work and this encourages political behavior as they seek to get their way.
- Decisions at work are impacted by both work-related goals and personal factors, so there is further scope for goal conflict.
- People and teams within organizations often have to compete for limited resources; this can lead to a kind of “tribal conflict” where teams compete to satisfy their needs and objectives, even when this is against the greater good.
In a perfect world, office politics do not exist. However, very few of us work in a perfect world. So what can we do about it?
The first step is for everyone to clearly understand their role. Unclear hierarchies and misunderstood roles will cause confusion. People will fight to gain their spot or will compete if they believe it will result in personal gain. Clear roles and clear levels of authority will lessen competition to have power over others. Also, clear roles will help set clear goals and drive personal growth and ultimately, corporate growth. Competition is good when it pushes people to do their best; it becomes damaging when people use it to put others down and not further their personal and the group goals.
People also fight for scarce resources, so the second step is to have an agreement on resource use. As a CFO, I find a well thought out budget that is created, discussed, revised and agreed upon by the team builds an understanding of corporate resources and how they are allocated.
Lastly, people fight because they have an inordinate desire to advance in the organization, or they abuse the power entrusted to them to manipulate others. In my mind, this is a bully and the only way to stop a bully is to stand up to them. Managing an organization requires a clear understanding of your employees and their relationships, be it with other employees, a client or supplier. Developing a system to ensure expectations are met without bullying is the key to a successful organization.
Dealing with office politics can be frustrating and considered a time waster. However, having an understanding of what creates the problem and building creative solutions will drive your organization to greater success.