I know that many of us have been frustrated by the political stuff that goes on in the office.  I wrote a post about this some time ago which spoke to how you can defend yourself against it…link http://www.scottneilson.com/?p=37

This post comes at the issue from a different angle.  This post looks more at the damage that kind of behavior can do to the productivity and morale in your office, and what can you do as a leader to limit the damage or manage the behavior.  I don’t think it is possible to eliminate it in total, but you can certainly manage it, and it is an important issue to address.

First, just some quick thoughts on the effects it can have in your office…IF YOU ALLOW IT!

  • At best it is a distraction, which means that people will be spending time worrying about and dealing with the politics instead of focusing on their jobs.  They will be thinking things like “what is their agenda, what are they going to do, what are they going to say, how will it make me look, how can I cover myself on this?”
  • It is demotivating because most people do not want to spend their time dealing with those issues.  They want to focus on their work and on doing the best they can.
  • The end result is low morale and increased turnover.  Unfortunately, the turnover is not good turnover.  You tend to lose the hard workers who have no stomach for politics, and you get stuck with those who make a living playing those games.

Next question is how do you know it is there?  How do you know if you have a political environment in your office?

Pretty simple.  Ask them!

This is an area in which employee surveys can be a gold mine.  What’s more, you do not have spend $100k to get that answer.  Your HR department can easily run a few focus groups to get basic data.

Also, keep your eyes open.  The symptoms are pretty easy to spot…disorganization; poor results; high turnover.

What is the cause? 

To know what you should do, you need to understand the root cause of political behavior in the workplace.  Politics can generally be categorized as one of two types…defensive or offensive.    Defensive politics is rooted in people trying to deflect or avoid responsibility for their actions.  Offensive politics is rooted in people trying to take advantage of others and/or situations for their own personal gain.

There are many things you can do to deal with politics in the workplace, and covering them all would require a book.  So, let me start with the basics since these are often missing and can be quick wins with great results.

One fundamental element of dealing with politics is establishing clarity…clarity around responsibilities and accountabilities.  When people are not clear on their roles, they cannot be clear on accountabilities.  This is an unnerving position for people to handle, so they fill that void with maneuvering and positioning to protect themselves and their turf, or to take advantage of the situation for personal gain.

Finally, what can you do?

Quite simply, it all starts with job descriptions.  It has been my experience that people do not do a good job of writing job descriptions.  Too often, when writing job descriptions, we think only in terms of the specific tasks we want an individual to accomplish.  You need to look beyond that.  As you write a job description you need to do so within the context of the other positions in the organization.

You need to establish CLARITY in the processes in which these individuals will operate.  What are the processes used and where does each position fit in those processes.  How does one function connect with, or interact with, another in the conduct of those processes?

You need to establish CLARITY in the distinction between the roles and responsibilities of the individuals working with those processes.  How is one position distinguished from another?  Do they understand how the department/organization works?  Who does what?  Do they understand their role exactly…what is expected of them?

You need to establish CLARITY in the accountability for the end results.  What key tasks must they perform and who owns the outcomes/results?  Are you sure they know that they are responsible for the results?

Finally, you need to communicate that…NOT only to the new person moving into that role, but to the other people in the organization so they understand how it all fits together and that there is no threat to them.  With that in place it is much easier to make sure that people do not wander beyond their paygrade and set-off a chain reaction of political behaviors.

  • Start with your processes.  You must have well thought through processes to achieve your end results.  You need to understand information flows and controls.  For each department look at the key processes.  Be sure that these are clear.
    • From there develop your organization structure.  You need to look at who is involved in those processes and how the roles interact…what are the key inputs and outputs.  You need to understand how filling a position will affect the existing ones.
      • From that design the job responsibilities and accountabilities.  Ensure that these are clear and distinct from other roles.  Be sure that people understand them and know exactly what is expected of them.

Unfortunately, these are basics and details that we, as leaders, often do NOT want to deal with.   Perhaps we are thinking that leadership is a more lofty pursuit and these are trivial matters for someone else to handle.  While that may be the case at times, generally it is not.

Most often organization failure results from a failure to do the basics well.  If you are a first line leader you are going to be on the ground making sure that this is done in your department.  As a senior level leader you must make sure that this clarity exists in your organization.  You need to be knowledgeable enough of the details to know that they are being handled correctly.