10 Secrets to Managing Workplace Politics - and the people who dish it out

In the workplace, irrational behaviour against an associate, aimed at tarnishing their reputation, is active politics. It is sordid, and in the perfect world, would attract the intervention of perceptive and incisive leadership. That does not necessarily mean just the leader at the top, but anyone in the organisation who is savvy and becomes aware of the poor behaviour can correct it.

That is an example of where ‘leadership density’ could be effective by applying assertive coaching in the moment. Sadly most corporate life is not like that, if unchallenged, this type of bad behaviour can spread fast and cause disruption to entire sections of a workforce.

Unless employers get to grips with building an environment that is a delight to work within, politics is inevitable. It is one of the least attractive facets of human nature usually found lurking in the murk of many organisations.

The inevitability and failure of most employers to protect their workforce from political elements means, that if workers are to escape being dragged in, they must learn to avoid rather than rely upon their employer. 

You don’t need the FBI to find people trapped in the habit of dishing out ‘put downs’ against others. That pathway can merely be thoughtless and mischievous humour, or stinging criticism. Both are firmly grounded in selfish positioning at the expense of another.

Political behaviour intended as slow burn or to spread like wildfire, delivered as open ridicule or a subversive snipe, calls for swift intervention before it threatens the working environment. At its worst, bad-mouthing of a colleague worker can quickly escalate into bullying with all the stress and unhappiness that goes with it; never positive, always damaging.

For the stronger victim, the next stage might be instant reaction, strategic retaliation and the development of factions. Always a distraction, it can be found in larger organisations where splits exist between external teams and head offices, marketing and IT etc. 

Culling politics calls for strong-minded people to reject the harmful spread and rise above whingeing and moaning staff who complain and condemn. Fail to do that and you get embroiled in politics. The political artists then see you as a sympathiser and back they come to embrace you. Political people seem to want to go on ‘smoke breaks’ and to toilets together, they lunch together and hang out together, their conversations often in whispered tone, one talking while the other is on the look out. They stick out and may as well fly a flag saying ‘disruption section here.’ 

Their classic contributions to the political merry-go- round include-

1. Deliberately manoeuvring to win popularity. It takes many forms including harvesting ideas from others and claiming them as their own. They hope to gain attention and win appreciation from managers or executives above them and seek personal limelight by detracting from the ingenuity of others.

2. Seeking popularity from their new boss, nuisance over-engagement etc.

3. Negatively influencing a new starter. “You have heard the B.S. now let me tell you what it is really like around here.”

4. Wilfully putting others ‘in their place’. Where’s that? Below them! Conversations designed to gain personal ground and reinforce their job security. ’’You need to watch out, take your lead from me…I am the main person here and don’t forget it."

5. Trying to steal a lead in a promotion interview round. "I should get that job; no one else can do it better around here…what do you think?"

6. Crude retaliation when a colleague discovers that someone has been political against them. “Oh, really, is that what they said? Just watch this space…”

How to avoid politics:

Eliminating politics at work cannot rely on individual interpretation of standards. In a company where employees are engaged in decision-making, a first step may be a published code of company-wide behaviour. Some may call it a written credo produced by management who are determined to create a happier organisation and quell this destructive behaviour.

Let us explore that for a minute, a credo should reflect the very positive fabric of the organisation and vice-versa.
What’s is more important, it has to be real. A credo can never bring a sense of purpose unless it is absorbed and lived by the entire company from top to bottom.

That is a challenge because a few paragraphs in a frame on the wall are useless unless they have been developed with prior total employee buy-in.

The message for any change coming from the top is simple. Visualise the change you are planning to implement then stop! Make sure your next move is a huge effort to engage the workforce and secure their buy-in to the proposal. Failure to do that and your dream plan is dust. Only when the workforce is locked-on can you proceed to launch. Especially when it is sensitive, changing an employee personal behaviour founded on their insecurity.

According to the experienced chartered psychologist and author, Beverley Stone, in her excellent book, ‘Confronting Corporate Politics,’ One-third (of employees) possess the desired values, attitudes and behaviour and hence fit the culture. One- third who are willing and able to change to fit the culture, and one-third who do not fit and will never change to fit the culture.’

That’s why credo’s and mission statements are not the panacea of changing political people. After after the first two days no one reads them. Try putting that to the test at the next meeting!

The reality is that with one third of the employees not fitting the required culture, companies rarely step up to this problem. It is in the too hard box and just has to be ‘managed.’ In the absence of positive action, some would contrive to say politics is the sign of a healthy company, I don’t think so. Particularly when it is now widely known that good people don’t tolerate nonsense or lack of support and leave managers before they leave companies.

In the absence of sweeping change then, how do you achieve a positive difference? One person at a time, one day at a time and until you get everyone onside.

Here are 10 tips how to stay clear of politics and workplace politicians.

1. "Don’t criticise, condemn or complain” - Dale Carnegie, ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People.’ Be your best more often to help fellow workers whenever needed. Never give them wrong suggestions. Stay away from the possibility of being caught up in the political tangle.

That especially includes conversations with your boss. I have experience of bosses who were so insecure they were the constant source of the biggest political leaks in the business. Your temporary popularity at that one moment in time will be reserved for the next person through their office.

2. Be honest. Never break anyone's trust. If any of your colleagues confide in you, don't ever disclose the secrets to anyone without the prior expressed approval of the person who told you.

3. Don't react to everything that irritates you at work. Some people will try to deceive you with mind games but remember, if you stick to your job, no one can ever cause you damage.

4. An individual playing politics may initially win approval, temporary recognition even adulation from their friends, but if seen over time to lack in integrity their ill formed reputation will crumble and they will be held to account.

5. Do not look for others to support your point of view or your version of events, and never confide in anyone at work in an attempt to canvass them to support you against others. It is a big mistake because that is you acting like a politician.

6. Some would say, don’t rely on verbal communication and communicate through emails. They would add that it is always advisable to keep your boss in the loop in all kinds of communication and to let your superiors know what's is going on. That is a judgement call. Some senior managers don’t like this and even ask not to receive copies of ‘routine e-mails’ on all subjects unless requested. Unless
suppressing the information could seriously damage the company, some just view them as ‘backside covering’ and don’t want to be involved. Get to know the expectation! Telling the teacher wasn’t always a good plan at my old school if you wanted to survive in the playground, why re-run the movie?

7. Never manipulate or embellish any information and never write or speak in a way that provides a negative slant against another. Why would you? Communicate impartially and where appropriate give a sincere appreciation of others.

8. Actively listen, avoid public judgement of others and never take sides. Encourage open communication.

9. Don’t spread rumours against anyone in the workplace. It is always better to face-off rather than backbiting. See the best in everyone; it makes you feel better than haranguing them.

10. Stay focused, set goals and work to the best of your ability. Do not allow other people to knock you off course or persuade you against your will. Remember you are paid for your results and not for politics in the workplace.

That's how you avoid politics at work!


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