Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Office politics: Is it creeping into your business?

Office politics exists in every work environment.  When a group of people works together for 40-50 hours a week there is bound to be some friction and difference of opinions.  There is no harm in it.  In fact, if channeled properly, this could prove to be useful, breeding healthy competition.  But unfortunately, in many a workplace, office politics advances to its ugliest form, slowly and stealthily, tormenting employee morale, threatening workforce stability and eating away productivity bit by bit.  It is why you need to step in early before office politics spins out of control.

So who are those office politicians?  They can be from any level of management: a junior staff playing the blame game over a task gone wrong, a manager making another look bad and incompetent in front of the top management, or an insecure assistant offering fulsome flattery to the immediate boss in an attempt to hide his incompetence. In addition, there are backstabbers, lobbyists, credit thieves, gossipers, double agents, and so on.

On the other hand, you also have the victims.  The number of office politicians may not be large, but the effects could be widespread.  In fact, even a single manager in your organization who is terribly hungry to expand his power and position is capable of doing a lot of harm.  His presence can make everyone feel insecure, and his favorite prey – whom he competes with, who don't feed his ego, or whose faces he doesn't like – are likely to be the worst sufferers, even if they are doing their job and doing it well.

Most of the times, workplace politics comes in disguise, making it tough for small business owners, particularly those who are not employee-turned entrepreneurs, to detect the political undercurrents that exist in the workplace.

You may believe that an embattled employee is innocently seeking your advice, but probably he is persuading you to take his side; a trickster may try to bamboozle you with show-off enthusiasm, intelligent-sounding technical jargon, or seemingly great ideas; an apple of your eye might have a hidden agenda to grow his career at the cost of others' professional image; someone may hire more only to feed his ego, or try to expand his authority in the name of cross-functional team activities; probably a few victims, back-stabbed and demoralized, have already bid adieu to your company – you're just unaware of the damage done.

As the owner, it is your job to prevent office politics from creeping into your small business.  Here are a few suggestions for you.

First, give a positive direction to the factors that are responsible for the political undercurrents.  Try to convert every conflict of opinions into a healthy debate, align personal ambitions of every employee with collective targets of your company, and guide everyone to value healthy conflict and cooperation.  Easier said than done, but try this. Second, take preventive measures – keep your policies transparent, and ensure that a system is in place to clearly define authority and accountability of every employee.  Third, be alert.  You need not worry about every water-cooler talk, but as soon as you sense that some people are out there playing a dirty game, act strongly against them regardless of their performance level or seniority.

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