March 22, 2018

Workplace Politics: Why It Kills Team Performance and What to Do About It

If there is one thing that kills morale and trust like no other – it’s office politics. Corporate, government, non-profit – I’ve worked in all three sectors and witnessed the destructive power of this elephant that is always in the room, yet almost no one wants to address it.

Organizational politics have power, and it’s not the good kind. They kill harmony between colleagues. They destroy workplace culture, and they lead to a toxic environment that is killing productivity and profitability.

From talking about people behind their backs, to manipulating relationships to achieve professional goals, to playing mind games to power-tripping – office politics are like attention-grabbing parts of a movie. And just like any good blockbuster, some leaders are content to sit back, watch, and not partake.

I’ve heard leaders use every excuses in the book – “It’s too messy,” “It will sort itself out,” “Not my problem,” and the one that still makes me go ick – “He’s been working here for 7 years and our funders like him, so I’m not going to get rid of him.”

The problem is that if any wound is left open and is not treated right away, it festers. And soon enough, the limb gets cut off. To allow office politics to run rampant in any organization, is a guaranteed way to see productivity drop and good people leave. It spreads negativity which, if left unchecked, can have a severe negative impact on a company’s finances and profitability.

An article published by USC Master of Science in Applied Psychology department, states the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that “negativity costs businesses $3 billion a year due to its harmful effects.”

Management that doesn’t try to control office politics is sending a message to their teams that they don’t care and that employees should just put up with it. When managers don’t take office politics seriously and don’t address it, that leaves a bad taste in the mouth of employees. If this happens regularly, they start to disconnect, become aggravated and upset. Some situations even end up in lawsuits and cost an organization heavy legal fees and tarnish the company’s reputation.

What Leaders Can Do About Office Politics

Many managers rationalize that the behavior doesn’t need to be corrected. They expect that workplace politics are just part of the daily routine that every employee must become accustomed to. That is a false reality. And a dangerous one.

A good leader can, and must take action. Here’s how:

  • Identify the Influencers

Influencers aren’t always who you expect. Influencers can come from anywhere in the organization, it could be a senior leaders, the person answering phones or anyone in between.

Some “office politicians” have ill-intent while others think their gossiping is harmless. Once you’ve identified who’s doing damage, build relationships with this individual and give them a platform to express their disappointments, and voice their opinions.

Sometimes, it can be as simple as pointing out that their actions are causing disruption. As for the particularly toxic employee who is planting seeds of doubt and deliberately causing chaos, it may be time for a more serious intervention.  

  • Avoid It

When we say, “avoid it,” we don’t mean “ignore it.” We mean take proactive steps to ensure that office politics are nipped in the bud. This starts right from the onboarding process, to training and everyday interactions. Start encouraging healthy relationships within the team by having conversations about what healthy looks like .

Promote a collaborative company culture rather than a competitive one where people are out to one up each other to prove their worth.

Make sure managers connect with teams regularly and foster open communication when they talk to them. Have them engage in honest conversations. This will stop employees from bottling up their frustrations or worse, talking to others about it and letting it spread like a virus.

  • Enforce a Code of Conduct

Every nation and culture in the world has their own version of The Golden Rule: “Do to others what you want them to do to you.” And if you didn’t grow up with that, perhaps you remember Thumper say in the Disney classic, Bambi, “If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”

Unfortunately, not everyone carries these valuable life lessons throughout their entire lives and need to be reminded about basic etiquette, common courtesy, and to quite simply, be kind.

Every new hire needs to be oriented about your organization’s code of conduct. Office politics can be avoided when employees know that office gossip, bullying, and manipulation will not be tolerated.

Make sure people know that a leader’s door is always open for grievances and suggestions. However, that same door will only remain open for those who can also check their egos at it before they enter.

Companies should have core values that spell out how they feel about office politics. Another way to handle organizational politics is to survey staff every quarter to identify the pain points.

If an organization’s culture doesn’t have trust and transparency, office politics will be evident. Companies constantly need to work on the deeper cause – unhappy people. They need to understand what’s upsetting their people. In cases where people are just naturally gossipers, inform them of their behaviour and see if they’re willing to be coached on it. If it continues, fire them.

Terminating employment may seem severe. Remember, office politics have been studied to create stressful and toxic work environments which lead to a decrease in productivity and high turnover. Organizational politics aren’t just bad for morale, but they could ultimately cost your company millions.

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