Workplace or office politics can be defined as the strategies employed by people to gain power and influence within an organization.
A common misperception is that only big corporations have to worry about workplace politics. But any type of organization, no matter how small, can be a breeding ground for this. Small businesses, if anything, may even be more susceptible because they often lack clear hierarchies and defined roles.
Before we get into the practical steps you can take to reduce the negative impact of workplace politics in your small business, let’s look at some of the signs that it might be a problem in your organization.
Workplace Politics: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Contrary to popular perception, workplace politics involve more than just backstabbing and gossip. And while some of it can be helpful—such as when employees form a coalition to improve working conditions—it can lead to negative consequences such as:
- Decreased productivity – When employees are focused on politicking, they’re not focused on their work. This can lead to a decrease in productivity and quality of work.
- Lower morale – Office politics can create an atmosphere of mistrust, which can lead to low morale and job satisfaction.
- Increased stress – The constant jockeying for position can be stressful and lead to burnout among employees.
- Slower decision-making – Because everyone is afraid of saying the wrong thing, decision-making can grind to a halt. For instance, addressing a company’s racial pay gap may seem like a simple case of determining if there’s a problem and then fixing it. But if employees are afraid to speak up for fear of retribution, the company may never address the issue.
These things can be hard to spot, but there are some telltale signs that office politics might be a problem in your organization:
- Gossip and backstabbing – Do you often hear employees gossiping about each other? Do they seem to take pleasure in sharing negative information?
- Cliques and factions – Do you see employees dividing into cliques or factions? Pay special attention to employee interactions. Are they warm and collegial, or cold and guarded? Do they seem to compete with each other when they should be working together?
- Poor communication – Are employees afraid to speak up or share ideas? Do you see a lot of passive-aggressive behavior?
- Turf wars – Are employees constantly sniping at each other over who gets credit for what? Do they seem more concerned with protecting their turf than with working together for the good of the organization?
Eliminating Workplace Politics
So you’ve seen the signs and you’re convinced that workplace politics are a problem in your organization. Now what?
Identify the main source of the problem
Is there one particular individual who seems to be at the center of all the drama? Or is it a group of employees who are constantly stirring up trouble?
One especially important thing to keep in mind is that the source of the problem may not be obvious. Just because someone isn’t directly involved in the gossip or backstabbing doesn’t mean they’re not part of the problem.
It’s almost a truism at this point that the chief troublemakers are usually the ones you don’t immediately expect. Don’t play favorites yourself, and try to be as objective as possible when assessing who might be causing the problems.
Address the problem directly
If the issue is with a specific individual, have a conversation with that person to try to resolve the issue. If the problem is more systemic, you may need to involve other people or departments to find a resolution.
But regardless of the approach you take, it’s important to address the problem directly. Don’t try to sweep it under the rug or ignore it in hopes that it will go away on its own.
No one wants to fire someone, but sometimes it’s necessary. If an employee just can’t seem to get along with anyone or is constantly causing drama, you may need to let them go.
Never leave anyone out
When you’re addressing the problem, make sure you involve everyone who’s affected by it. This includes people who may not be directly involved in the drama but are still impacted by it.
Workplace politics thrives when people feel excluded or marginalized. Recognizing your employees’ humanity and showing them you have their best interests at heart is one of the best ways to combat it.
Encourage open communication
Creating an environment where employees feel comfortable speaking up and sharing their ideas is one of the best ways to prevent workplace politics from taking root.
Encourage employees to share their ideas openly, without fear of retribution. Promote a culture of respect and trust by:
- Creating channels for feedback – Make it easy for employees to give feedback, whether it’s through regular one-on-one meetings, an anonymous feedback form, or some other method.
- Encouraging dissenting opinions – Make it clear that you value employees who speak up and share their ideas, even if they disagree with you.
- Modeling the behavior you want to see – If you want employees to feel comfortable speaking up, you need to be comfortable doing it yourself. Share your ideas and opinions, and encourage others to do the same.
Workplace politics might seem like a necessary evil, but it doesn’t have to be. If you find your office constantly in turmoil, take action to address the problem. By following the steps above, you can get rid of toxic workplace politics and create a more positive, productive work environment for everyone involved—and that’s something everyone in the office can get behind!