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Avoid negative influence of office politics

Sunday, April 5, 2015
Janice Learmond Criqui

Everyone has an agenda in the workplace. Whether people are aiming for a promotion, attempting to win a big project, trying to impress their boss, or looking to move departments, their actions often have an underlying purpose.

This motivation can lead to healthy, professional networking and communication, but they may also cause power struggles, competition and alliance-making that can upset everyone within a team.

How can you identify this type of “office politics,” and how do you avoid its negative influence?

Office politics can be defined as the use of often underhand methods to gain advantage in the workplace. People do this to achieve their goals, gain prestige, or seek greater influence, so that they can persuade others to share their viewpoint, access assistance or resources, or get ahead in their careers.

We all need to build good relationships in the workplace. For example, the more connections you can build with stakeholders and senior leaders, the more likely you are to succeed. And, engaging with leaders rather than staying on the sidelines means that you increase your visibility and ability to accomplish your goals.

However, this can cross over into office politics when people participate in destructive behaviour to influence others, and it can have a number of harmful consequences. Instead of relying on positive relationship-building techniques, such as persuasion and networking, individuals use damaging and unethical actions like manipulation, corruption, backbiting, or infighting. This can cause people to become frustrated at perceived inequities, damage team morale, and result in stress and burnout.

Prof Kathleen Kelley Reardon identified four types of political organisations, and published her findings in the January 2015, Harvard Business Review. These organisations are:

Minimally political: leaders ensure that rules, expectations and promotion standards are clear and followed. Office camaraderie is strong, and no one engages in underhanded political acts.

Moderately political: these organisations are generally rules-driven, and any political activity is low key. People engage as a team, and few conflicts occur.

Highly political: powerful individuals manipulate the rules to their advantage, at their own convenience. Cliques are common, and there’s usually a clear division between people who are part of the “inner circle” and those who are not.

Pathologically political: this environment is marked by distrust. People achieve goals by circumventing normal channels and procedures, and by relying on personal connections. In these organisations, people focus less on work and more on protecting themselves, and seeking advantage.

Patrick Lencioni’s book, Five Dysfunctions of a Team, has outlined many characteristics of highly and pathologically politicised organisations—absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of team accountability, and inattention to team objectives.

These unhealthy characteristics are present in the latter stages of Adizes’ Corporate Lifecycle. For example, during the “recrimination” stage, people often assign blame instead of fixing problems, focus on their survival to the detriment of their work, and spread unhealthy gossip. Although many organisations linger here, this stage often precedes “corporate death.”

So, how can you defend yourself in a political workplace and ensure that you and your team members survive office politics? Here are seven strategies that you can use:

• Set a good example. Make sure you “walk the talk,” and demonstrate positive behaviour. Communicate consistently and transparently, encourage good teamwork, reward good behaviour, give feedback on poor behaviour, listen, build trust, behave in an emotionally intelligent way, and seek win-win results in all of your interactions. 

• Avoid gossip. Deal with gossip immediately to avoid malicious rumours spreading. Talk to the people involved to establish the truth, and make sure that you lead by example by not gossiping yourself.

• Combat bullying. This type of behaviour is unacceptable in any situation. Unfortunately, however, it is common in the workplace.

• Focus on your goals. Avoid taking sides when conflict arises, and concentrate on your objectives rather than on the opposing viewpoints. After all, everyone should agree on the ultimate goal: ensuring that the team or organisation succeeds.

• Identify stakeholders. Who holds power and influence in your organisation? Identifying and strengthening your ties with stakeholders gives you greater insight, and it allows you to navigate these complicated relationships successfully. Remember, job titles don’t necessarily reflect power.

• Develop alliances. It’s important to find allies at work, who can support you, give you advice, and even provide friendship. So, avoid focusing exclusively on your work and ignoring opportunities to build relationships with others. Also, find a mentor who can show you how to steer clear of potential problems and help you improve your connections.

• Keep written records. If a conflict arises that requires intervention from human resources or your supervisor, make sure that you have documentation to support your position.

Using these strategies will help you navigate the corporate environment, and avoid negative behaviours and politics. 

However, if your situation doesn’t improve, it may be best to leave the toxic environment and look for a new position in a healthier workplace.


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