How to Banish Office Politics
Ah, office politics. I have worked at many large companies in the course of my career and one of the main reasons that I enjoy being in a smaller organization is the lack of politics. Don't get me wrong, politics are a disease that afflicts every company, but on a smaller scale, problems can be easier to identify and manage.
No matter if you are a junior associate or the CEO, you will eventually get involved in a sticky situation--whether you're an active participant or an unwilling third party. When you're a company leader, however, it's imperative that you prevent a petty issue between employees from escalating into a major point of contention. That's when an issue starts to stress the entire company.
Here is some advice on how to stay above the political fray:
Cut It Off at the Pass
When employees try to push a personal agenda or form unproductive alliances on different sides of an issue, it typically doesn't happen out of the blue. It builds over time. Pay attention to arguments in staff meetings and offhand comments in the break room. Draw attention to the conflict early so you can put a stop to the larger issue before it gets out of hand.
Keep it Private
A staff meeting is not the time for a debate. If you sense tensions arising, ask to table the discussion for another time. This allows tempers to cool off and keeps a private issue from going public.
You're not exempt from this advice, especially if you are run a company with a co-founder. If you have an issue, discuss it behind doors or even off site. The change in perspective might even help you see the issue differently.
Address It Head On--But Get Out of the Middle
An embattled employee may come to you trying to get you to take sides, or simply to vent. They may approach it innocently, saying they're asking for your advice. The best way to address this is head on. Offer to facilitate a conversation between the employees, but don't agree to become their arbitrator. It's best when the employees at odds can come to agreement on their own and in private.
Play in Teams
Don't create situations where employees or teams are forced to compete with each other--that can trigger divisions. Instead, when employees are interdependent and need to rely on colleagues to get their jobs done, they are less likely to resort to office politics for fear of burning a bridge. It also prevents an internal "us vs. them" mentality that can be destructive to a company's culture.
Practice Damage Control
If you have a close-knit leadership team, make sure you have an open line of communication. This is especially important if you are working with a co-founder. Report back about what employees are saying about one another. That way it's easier to limit the damage.
Present a United Front
Just like you do when your kids are trying to pit you and your spouse against one another, when an internal issue divides the staff, present a united front. If you or your partner are viewed as taking sides or feeding office politics it could cause further damage to morale and to your authority as "the boss."
Play Nice With Your Partner
If you have a direct conflict with a partner, don't let the issue linger and become more serious. Talk things out--professionally--and stick to the facts. Avoid emotions or personal agendas. For debates over issues like company finances or sweeping changes, consider bringing in an outside expert (accountant, attorney, etc.) who can analyze the situation objectively and provide counsel on a direction that meets everyone's needs.
Call It Like It Is
Even the smallest companies can have instigators who thrive on creating conflict. I say call it like it is: Get underneath what is motivating this behavior and take action. If you have started your own business, you have a pretty good intuition about what you want for the company and how to hire people who can make that vision happen. Follow your gut and recognize what's normal for a growing business and what is more harmful.
Employees who question you and push you in a healthy debate can be productive; those who work behind the scenes to generate conflict are not. Recognize when it's time to step in and put the issue to rest.
Sett the tone that political maneuvering will not be tolerated.
ERIC V. HOLTZCLAW is a serial entrepreneur who has founded multiple startup companies, including one of the first profitable Internet enterprises. His last company appeared on the Inc. 5000 three years in a row. Holtzclaw advises clients on the whys of business--why customers buy, why teams work, and the all-important "entrepreneurial" why. He is the author of Laddering, and his weekly radio show, The "Better You" Project, shines a spotlight on entrepreneurs' individual business journeys and successes. To learn more about Holtzclaw, visit ladderingworks.com or e-mail email@example.com.
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