Office Politics, Again Reconsidered

On Monday, I discussed why workplaces can have “politics” affect the ability of individuals to just to do the job. Today I thought I’d talk a little bit about how those politics can manifest themselves and when they can become toxic to proper operations and profitability.

How Office Politics Manifest Themselves

I already laid out the types of issues that workplace politics can affect:

  • How decisions are made
  • Which organizations or activities should receive a piece of the budget and how much
  • How individuals and teams should be led
  • How large teams should be
  • Who should be in charge of a cross-discipline (or cross-department) project
  • Who should get credit for X accomplishment
  • Who should be blamed for X failure
  • How much autonomy employees should have to pursue their individual tasks
  • Which practices need to be changed
  • Whether another company should be acquired
  • Which or whose work should be done first
  • Whether the company should accept a buyout or merger with another organization
  • How much work should be subcontracted to an outside organization
  • Whose bright idea should be used to solve problem X?

Unfortunately, other behaviors can occur before the decisions above are made. These can include:

  • Differing levels of respect accorded to individuals based on attributes unrelated to their job role or performance
  • Gossip
  • Cliques
  • Excluding others from conversations or sudden silences when particular individuals approach
  • “Forgetting” to invite specific people to meetings or discussions related to the discussions listed above
  • Sarcastic remarks about individuals in other teams or cliques made to undermine their level of respect or effectiveness
  • Resentment or envy over perceived favoritism
  • Actual favoritism or nepotism
  • Rudeness
  • Regular meetings or reminders from HR about professionalism in the workplace
  • Micromanagement
  • Active sabotage of other groups’ work

Any of this sound familiar? When I started observing it, I realized what I was seeing: it’s like high school! And the behaviors are often just as petty and immature. Forget how your civics class tells you politics are supposed to happen in an ideal situation. Watch how people actually behave when they feel their personal interests or “in group” are being threatened.

And these dynamics can occur in any size of organization, from small business to multinational corporation. Large companies offer more complex dynamics and rivalries (between locations, divisions, management and labor, long-timers vs. new employees, etc.). Smaller businesses can have politics if you’re operating in a family business and are or are not a member of said family.

Can Office Politics Be a POSITIVE Thing?

Admittedly, I’ve made office politics sound like an unavoidable, evil, toxic force in the workplace…and yes, it can be, as represented by the behaviors I mentioned above. However, there are times when the social environment in a workplace is positive and supportive. What does that sort of “politics” look like? (Mind you, these are general trends–any place can have an “off day.”)

  • Individuals are focused on the overall organization “mission” rather than personal agendas
  • Leaders and team members are mutually supportive
  • Problems are primarily related to accomplishing the mission, not due to interpersonal issues or team dynamics
  • Leaders are willing to lend a hand when front-line staff encounter a surge in activity
  • Respect flows up and down the chain of command
  • Employees are able to make decisions that affect their ability to do their jobs with a minimum of supervision
  • Errors or failures result in efforts to prevent recurrence, not assign blame
  • Individuals are not afraid to speak their mind
  • People work late because they’re enjoying what they’re doing, not because they are ordered to stay
  • Leaders “walk the talk” (as opposed to “Do what I say, not what I do”)

I’ve been lucky to work in one or two operations like this. They’re not as common as I’d like, but a pleasure to work for when they exist and they can make a huge difference in your job satisfaction. They are often the result of excellent leaders. Appreciate those places and people when you find them!

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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