Question: Need help to end political games at workplace

In last few years I have seen our organization grow from a handful of early employees to over 300 people.

As a part of the founding team, I have noticed a decline in the way early employees formed alliances to drive powerful growth initiatives. To the current situation, where alliances between executives and key employees are increasingly political, and primarily a way to increase clout.

Maybe this is a cultural byproduct of growing fast. Do you have any advice on how we can keep office politics in check?

11 Expert Insights

You are experiencing one of the many problems that growth creates.   One of the contributing factors in the increase of politics during growth is that the balance of power in the organization often shifts as a result.  Some individuals and even entire departments feel that the growth is diminishing their power and influence while others experience it for the first time.  A basic example: a technology start up relies on its technology expertise, creates an initial customer base and then realizes that a strong sales and marketing function is needed to get to the next level.  Often, the tech people don't like to see some newly hired S&M professional telling them how to position the product, build the brand, etc...after all for years the technology kind of sold itself didn't it.

In other cases, people observe that certain people and departments get more resources than others, influence executives more often, might even perceived as "untouchable and irreplaceable".  These perceptions will increase the politics.

The challenge is not thinking you can eliminate the politics because you can't.  Your focus needs to be on clarifying things like responsibilities, boundaries of authority, acceptable behaviors and quickly and directly dealing with counter-productive politics and behaviors.  The frightening part is that some of the guilty parties might be those who helped get you where you are and you will be tempted to ignore the problem.

Political savvy is an important competency for employees to have ... as long as it serves the good.  In the workplace, we all need to be aware of how we represent ourselves  and how we build our relationships.  But when offices turn into political bailiwicks, effectiveness can go by the wayside and the culture becomes a negative, "us against them" environment.

Your fast growth has impacted many of the "old-timers"' I am sure.  Not knowing the range of political behavior, I offer some areas you may want to investigate.

First of all, how is your internal communication network, these days?  Does everyone have access to all information?  In a 5-person company, it is incredibly easy to communicate the same message to all employees at the same time.  But turn that number into 300, some may be hearing messages that others are not.  My suggestion is to review your internal communication strategy and ensure everyone in the organization is getting the same message at the same time.  Open communication is vital to keep all employees moving toward the vision.

It might also be helpful to take a good look at your team leaders.  What are their motivations?  Are they working for the company and their teams ... or are they working for themselves?  You may need to have a difficult conversation with one who may be pandering to him/herself.

Both of the above items are contributors to trust ... or the lack thereof.  So a trust audit might be in order.  You may want to ascertain the level of trust in your organization (from the top down).  Stephen M. R. Covey has written a great book, The Speed of Trust.  In this book, he describes various levels of trust and lists 13 individual behaviors that build trust.  In addition, a workshop has been developed, Leading at the Speed of Trust, to help others learn and incorporate these behaviors into their personal and work life.  I highly recommend taking a look at this resource.

Hope these ideas help!

Likewise, congratulations on your growth.

Often the original positive drivers can get lost and are overtaken by forces that are hard to see and  foresee when there is growth. This "culture" challenge is complex with many facets (many of which have already been addressed.)

I will suggest only one idea here:  It is said that you get what you measure (or pay attention to). What is the behavior(s) that you want to see more of (to replace behaviors that you want to see less of –unproductive political posturing)?

Articulate for yourself what those behaviors are. Find ways to identify and measure it. Then model it yourself first and foremost! Make yourself accountable to someone else for these positive behaviors. Then develop it in the senior team leaders and have them model it and be accountable for it. Perhaps have special employee training for these behaviors (after you and your senior staff are practicing it).  Be sure to put this behavior in reviews and feedback mechanism. Catch people doing it and give them positive strokes for it.  Build incentives around this behavior.

The behavior that persists is the behavior that gets rewarded and supported, either openly and tangibly, or hidden and intangibly...which leaves me with this question for you.

What behaviors are you willing to put on the 'do not tolerate' list that would shift the culture?

I think all of the answers so far have great merit. Growth creates a lot of issues, and the culture often doesn't keep up.

However, you may also want to consider that employees typically create drama (office politics, gossip, etc) because they aren't getting enough drama from you and the company. Everyone needs some excitement and interesting things going on (drama). When the organization lacks good drama, your employees naturally create their own drama, and it's usually bad.

What are you doing to create positive drama for them? What excitement are you creating and what successes are you celebrating with them? What challenges are you giving them? If you give them positive drama, there won't be any need for them to create their own drama.

I know "political" behavior in an office is usually seen as negative, insidious and counter-productive. I agree with that if we only consider the dark side of politics, where incompetent people are rewarded because they stroke egos and hog glory.

I tend to see political acumen as a necessary skill, especially in larger organizations.  It is first a skill of assessing power. Power could be related to title and formal authority. But power can also be competence, relationship and influence. Secondly, political acumen involves the determination of what  actions to take, given the assessments.  

Quick example: A newly-hired manager joins the organization. She may think her boss is an ally, and therefore a political asset. But after a few weeks, it becomes clear that her boss is in over his head, not really that capable. In an ideal world, the new manager makes a case to her boss' boss, or HR. But that's almost always a bad idea. In a direct power struggle, the incumbent, higher-ranked manager almost always wins. What to do? She needs to build a political base in order to: a) Prevent her incompetent boss from throwing her under the bus. and b) Gain support for higher quality work and decisions, especially if the boss is a roadblock.  Such a politically savvy manager will be wise to make connections across different functions, get placed on task forces to demonstrate competence, and quietly cultivate potential allies based on their competence, influence, etc.

Given all of this, I find myself wondering if all the new people who have come on board feel disenfranchised vs. the old guard. If so, behaving politically may simply be a survival strategy. Senior leadership would be well-advised to explore, ask questions, and get old guard and new guard folks to interact constructively on clearly-defined projects.

Good luck!

First of all, congratulations on your growth! You may be right that the behaviors you've observed are a byproduct of your rapid growth - as you get larger, it's natural to see some sub-grouping. If I'm understanding correctly, the issue is not the formation of alliances, but how those alliances are formed.  Assuming that is correct the issue becomes whether your organization is living its values.

Often as a small start-up, values are implicit.  Founders tend to come together because of shared vision, mission, and values. There's no perceived need to dwell on it. As you grow that dynamic changes. If your values are not explicit, there may be no yardstick by which to call out what you see as political and not how you want to operate.

It might be helpful to convene the leadership group when there is time for dialogue about organizational values. Alignment has to begin with the leadership team, then down through the org. And making the values explicit is far from enough. The leadership group needs to walk the talk. Perhaps most important, no one should be getting rewarded, e.g. with more clout, when they are behaving in violation of your values.

Well, here again - congratulations on your growth!

Different company sizes require different means of communications, procedures and so on. A small companies or start ups have a  'can do, will do' attitude with the managers being natural leaders. Growth requires middle management to understand that their accountability is by $ making results, not by politics or niceties. Politics create a lot of internal friction negatively affecting productivity and growing the 'delegation of incompetence' syndrome I discuss in my book ( see ).

There are several ways to reduce politics two of which I propose here:

I. Set clear, challenging but achievable goals to your managers. Make them positively shift attention from negative energies to positive ones.

II. Establish clear procedures, responsibilities and authorities so that every person knows what are his inputs, contribution and deliverables. You may have some unhappy people but a very clear rail track in place.

I will be glad to discuss in more detail the actual situation and symptoms to plan and prioritize solutions.

Politics is an outcome of poor leadership from the top; politicized cultures are symptomatic of highly-dysfunctional organizations. It is no longer acceptable, in my view, to go along with any form of politics, or the politicization of relationships as a means to navigating internal terrain, whatever the motivation. It is a form of corruption plain and simple. The new generation of authentic and transparent leaders do not enable politics as a tool of 'relationship management'. You might find my blog post for the Corporate Responsibility Association valuable as I look at this issue within the context of the leadership revolution that is now going on in companies:

You describe a toxic condition which forms the root of the long-term failure of so many companies. They inadvertently create ceilings on their growth and eventually wither.

Can the situation be changed? Yes, but as with an infection deep in the body you have to cut it out before it poisons the whole. This is not to infer that people have to go necessarily but attitudes and beliefs can be difficult to change.

There are many aspects to this, most of which have been addressed across the previous answers but if your aim is limited to keeping office politics in check, the interventions you adopt are unlikely to go deep enough.

• Afraid to let go of the “system” yet blame and expect improvement from people while it is the system that cause the   failure
• Lack common purpose or clarity of purpose
• Fail to recognize the vital role of culture upon performance
• Insulate themselves from criticism and complaints
• Do not see what they need to do or they chose to ignore what they saw
• People fear bringing them needed information or insight
• Fail to listen to or suppress the concern of others
• Are insularity, rigid – command and control, and fail to adjust to change
• Focused within their functions, protective of turf via politics creating silos