What to do when there are office politics

Office politics. Too often, people watch others get rewarded due to relationships rather than results, and those that feel they are “real talent” get sidelined because they don’t understand the politics game. It may frustrate you when you feel you or your friends are more deserving of these rewards.

“That guy is such a yes man, always sucking up to the boss.”

“He’s such a politician, never know what he says when talking to management.”

There’s this negative connotation about office politics. If someone is labeled a “politician”, the idea is that this person cannot be trusted. He or she is two-faced. Backstabs. Spends more time on relationships than on actually doing the work.

For people who resent this, they tend to behave in the opposite way, refusing to spend time outside of work with their managers. Believing that the work is enough to get them through. Resenting any form of relationship building with their bosses as a form of “selling out” on their principles. Quietly complaining to their close colleagues about how unfair things are, effectively, making them involved in office politics as well.

Why office politics exist, and it’s not because there are bad people

But the reality is, in large groups of people, office politics will be there and it will matter. How do you get buy-in from the team?

Not everyone necessarily responds to logic. Some value relationships over logic, whether it’s because of their natural personality or because no one is really sure what needs to be done anyway. So feels safer to take care of everyone’s feelings in case something goes wrong, in which case “we all made this decision together”.

People who resent office politics tend refuse to spend time building relationships, seeing it as “selling out” on their principles

People often have to make decisions based on imperfect information, whether they are your manager or colleague. Because of this, their trust levels with different people in the organisation influence how they make decisions, taking into account the interest of the people in their inner circle. It’s less risky when you can get buy in from your inner circle with so much uncertainty.

Understand that this is the reality. Understand that if you want to progress in your organisation, your ability to work with others is important, and many people rely on their feelings rather than logic when it comes to making decisions. Your brand and relationships with others matter.

And I’m talking about achieving a business goal, not a personal selfish goals. Being able to persuade others to make the right decisions and take action is an important skill, and relationships play a role in getting this done.

Wait, so we should have office politics?

Depends on what type of office politics.

People who believe they can get ahead in their careers by using relationships to hurt others are misguided and any competent leader or manager can and should spot this behaviour from a mile away.

Even though I’ve talked about how politics will exist when large groups of people are working together towards a goal, the type of politics that is malicious will damage the company’s culture and affect the company’s ability to make the best decisions.

Passive aggressive personalities that spend more time gossiping within their groups that hurt others. Those that are too afraid to confront, and backstab instead. Or those that focus on trying to get you to do worse, rather than focus on trying to do better themselves to get ahead.

People who believe they can get ahead in their careers by using relationships to hurt others are misguided

When this becomes the prominent culture in the organisation, good talent start to leave, and poor talent start to get rewarded, ultimately leading to businesses failing in the long run.

This is because good talent will soon realise that getting ahead is all about getting the boss to like you (which is what they don’t waste a lot of time on), rather than delivering results (which is what they are good at). They will get frustrated at the type of decisions being made which appear illogical.

So how do we reduce or eliminate politics at work?

The leaders role in managing office politics

This is where good leadership comes in. It takes a strong leader with the will to look pass their own emotions and relationships with others, and instead assess issues objectively using data and logic.

We all know this is not easy, because leaders are human beings too, capable of making mistakes, not having the confidence to damage important relationships, carry the same insecurities as any normal person, and in some cases, got to where they are because of their own relationships rather than actual results.

It take a strong leader with the will to look pass their own emotions and assess issues objectively using data and logic

Having said that, it’s not an excuse to try to judge others based on perception rather than actual results.

If you’re a leader, whenever you feel positively or negatively about someone in the company, stop and look at their actual performance, rather than how they make you feel. Is your feeling justified and is it fair?

Leaders should create a culture of transparency at work

Google is well-known for it’s culture, but employers often brush this off as an expensive luxury, referring mainly to the perks that Google offers employeees (such as free food) rather than looking at what makes their culture great. These often cost nothing.

For example, in the name of transparency, employees at Google are discouraged from complaining about other employees via email. In a popular book “Work Rules!” by Laszlo Bock, Google’s HR Leader, Bock writes about the first time he experienced Google’s commitment to transparency at work:

“The way we solve the ‘backstabbing’ problem, for example, is that if you write a nasty email about someone, you shouldn’t be surprised if they are added to the email thread… I remember the first time I complained about somebody in an email and my manager promptly copied that person, which forced us to quickly resolve the issue. It was a stark lesson in the importance of having direct conversations with colleagues!”

Even when it comes to sharing of information, the company “defaults to openness” by allowing all employees access to information about what is happening at the company.

This is a stark contrast to what most other companies actually practice, which is to share information only as required, keeping most information at the top, and not bothering to explain decisions by just referring it to a decision made by management. If you don’t have all the information, you have no choice but to trust management.

When a leader says “just trust me because you don’t know everything, it’s a management decision”, it creates a culture where leaders become lazy at thinking through their decisions. This lack of objectivity and accountability creates an environment where negative forms of politics will thrive.

When a leader says “just trust me because you don’t know everything, it’s a management decision”, it creates a culture where leaders become lazy at thinking through their decisions.

What we can all do to stop negative office politics

Work hard and deliver results, that’s always the most important thing. Embrace the fact that office politics will exist when large groups of people are working together, just hope it’s not the malicious or negative type.

If you’re leader, and you sense your subordinate prefers spending time building relationships with you rather than on the actual effort of achieving results, remind them always that they will be measured on their results. If a colleague starts to gossip, show them that you are disinterested. Remember, allowing these things to happen on your watch could be just as bad as participating yourself.

And always encourage everyone to be transparent and speak with candor.

If you’re in an environment where you feel people are using politics for the wrong reasons, and your leadership is not doing anything to discourage this, always politely challenge and ask questions. Ask your leaders why certain decisions were made. Keep everyone accountable, regardless whether they are your leader or your colleague, to make objective decisions based on logic rather than emotions.

And if you risk damaging your career because you might upset your boss… well, do you really want to be in an environment like that anyway?

“Whoever you are, or want to be, you may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you.”

— Marshall Berman