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Four Ways Senior Leaders Can Curb Office Politics

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Creating hierarchies is human, but when office politics aren’t addressed, it fosters an environment where adverse behaviors thrive and operations suffer. Here's how to head that off.

Since the emergence of modern office life, office politics have played a role in workplace dynamics. When power is gained through performance and perception, it is almost natural for humans to create a hierarchical atmosphere and, from there, a toxic environment is likely to emerge.

Recently, Pepperdine Graziadio Business School set out to learn how managers and workers view office politics including toxic behaviors, discriminatory practices, and interpersonal difficulties. In a survey of 800 professionals, 68 percent say office politics is very or somewhat prevalent in their office, and half of the workers surveyed say they feel pressured to engage in office politics.

As the survey results show, office politics can be a challenge for businesses. When office politics aren’t addressed, it fosters an environment where adverse behaviors thrive and operations suffer. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. According to the survey, management has the most influence over the level of office politics in an organization. With that in mind, here are four ways leaders can foster a healthy work environment:

1. Maintain an open dialogue in planning and set realistic goals and expectations for team members.

There is a famous saying in business: “Bad communication ends a lot of good things. Good communication ends a lot of bad things.” When asked about the top challenges for getting ahead in today’s workplace, communication problems (35 percent) were the only response that finished ahead of office politics (29 percent). As clear expectations and goals can keep employees on track, unclear expectations make employees ask questions.

When there is a defined path to success, team members can better keep their heads in the game and their eyes on the ball. Managers should sit down with employees and produce a realistic and clear action plan on how to achieve upward mobility in the company.

According to the survey, nine in ten office workers (94 percent) say senior management has an obligation to make sure office politics are not allowed to get out of hand. Managers are usually the frontline preventing office politics from running rampant. Workers rely on managers to provide a steady flow of information. Ditching the annual review in favor of weekly catch-ups, explaining the reasons behind decisions for clarity and learning, and letting each person in the meeting speak for two minutes to start the meeting can foster trust and forge positive relationships (over skepticism and isolation).

2. Exhibiting supportive, trusting, and caring behavior towards team members.

When workers were asked what types of office politics they see most, rumor spreading (34 percent), sucking up (34 percent), blame gaming (29 percent), and backstabbing (27 percent) were most prevalent. Workers in offices experiencing this behavior will lose trust among colleagues, destroying harmony and impacting the bottom line.

A toxic work environment also encourages resignations. The Society for Human Resource Management suggests workers most often leave managers, not companies. Managers who are committed to a healthy, trusting workplace will see positive results and better retention. Companies can have a sterling reputation on the outside, but an employee’s desire to stay is linked to direct reports and colleagues, not corporate prestige.

3. Build trust through the open sharing of information and celebration of team achievements.

A manager that isn’t sharing honest information or is not providing feedback to employees can contribute to unsubstantiated hearsay spreading in the office. Facts and truth are powerful antidotes against rumors. Being clear and honest with employees, in both good situations and bad, reduces rumor spreading and speculation. And when businesses have a win, both big and small, celebrate it and make sure the office knows the importance of worker achievements. Whitney Johnson, author of the book Smart Growth, says the celebration of wins reinforces the lessons learned on the path to achievement and increases the chances for further success down the line.

4. Hand out rewards and identify resources to encourage a positive workplace.

Putting in the hard work of effective communication, setting an example, and helping employees find a purpose, is a manager’s mandate. Leaders also need to supply the right team resources and follow through with rewards. Incentives should be equitable and avoid favorable treatment towards a certain group of employees.

To be certain, in the absence of leadership, office politics can become a vicious circle, impacting current operations, and closing off pipelines to talent. According to the Pepperdine Graziadio survey, two in five office workers (39 percent) say office politics caused them to think about leaving an employer completely, while one-quarter (25 percent) say it caused them to leave an employer. If an employee leaves under circumstances related to a negative office politics environment, they will let their colleagues know to avoid that workplace. Reputations stick.

Having an open dialogue with employees will help keep office politics in check before it becomes a major issue. Office politics can be avoided, but it requires clear communication, proactive action and, most of all, leadership.


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