Office Politics: Necessary Evil, or Are They Holding Your Company Back?

The best way to eliminate office politics is to stop them at the source. (Photo by istockphoto.com).

A couple of weeks ago, I read an interesting article on Fast Company called How to Minimize Politics in Your Company.  In it, Ben Horowitz argues for a three pronged approach on dealing with office politics:

  1. Hire people with the right kind of ambition;
  2. Build strict processes for potentially political situations; and,
  3. Be careful with “He said, she said”

All of this is fine advice, and I do think you can minimize much of the business impact of office politicking by using these steps. And if you’re in a newer organization, following this guidance may even help prevent a political culture from setting in.

The problem is that in most existing organizations, you are simply treating the symptoms (or outcomes) of office politics, not the source.

Is office culture shared?

There are many theories outlining how company culture develops, but it’s been my experience that, generally speaking, it happens within pockets throughout an organization, with an exception for things that truly impact the bottom line. So your corporate culture is probably going to be different in the manufacturing arm of the organization versus what it is in the marketing department.

When it comes to big things such as pay practices, performance management, product strategy, and resource allocation though, that comes straight from the top of the company. And if you don’t think that impacts culture, think again. All of them impact who you bring into the organization, and, who moves up the ranks in the organization.

Here’s the problem with politics in the workplace, though: if allowed to blossom, it can impact these broader cultural factors.

Off with its head

If office politics impacts those broader factors, company leadership is allowing office politics to play a role in the future of the company. That means the ideal of merit, the best idea winning, or even a basic principle such as hard work paying off go out the window with office politics taking precedent.

The only way for companies to reign it in is to have zero tolerance for political decisions. But here’s the bigger problem: if company politics have been dominating decisions in a company for decades, that means at least some company leaders have likely benefited or have even been promoted into their current positions based on working the system.

I know this may surprise you, but current leaders may be biased in favor of the current system. It can’t be that bad if they somehow rose to the top in it, right?

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In these cases, the tips from Fast Company may not be effective and would only partially mitigate the damage done by office politics. What would really have to change would be leadership that is committed to depoliticizing the workplace. Most of the time, that won’t be an HR decision but a board decision.

What’s the harm?

One of the biggest objections I hear about aggressively ridding workplaces of politics is that in some cases, it doesn’t seem to be doing any harm. If your company is getting good results and politics is a major factor in getting ahead, doesn’t that prove that politics might have very little impact on the end result? Some will even argue that workplace politics helps get rid of employees who don’t fit in with the company culture.

In most of the examples I’ve heard given, companies have seen success in spite of any workplace cultural concerns that may be occurring. In at least the short term, some companies could have you work out of tents in Antarctica, and at least enough people would be willing to do so to make it successful.

However, the problem is deeper than results right now. Can you assure me that a political culture in the workplace isn’t holding back your company? Could you have even more success if the company took a more enlightened stance on workplace politics? And can you assure yourself of long-term success with that strategy? Are employees that will be driving the company in a decade being forced out or stalled in their careers because of the backward political pressure your company culture puts on them?

Politics are pervasive

Yet, politics seemingly surround corporate America. In a recent poll of SmartBrief on Workforce readers, I asked if politics played a role in success at their companies. Over 90 percent believed it had at least some impact, with only 9 percent arguing that their workplace was dictated by merit.

Right now, it’s necessary to play the political game in American business — if not just to get ahead, but to stay afloat in a competitive employment environment. But when that shifts gears to a more employee-friendly state, or when global competition resumes its chipping away at American dominance in certain sectors, I have to wonder if an apathetic view of workplace politics is going to continue?

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