Converting office politics into positive energy

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Office politics! How often have you heard this term? More significantly, how often have you heard people tell you how they hate work place politics? Almost daily, people tell me they are looking for a work environment where there are no politics.  However, office politics, regardless of how you define or label it, is a reality of life we cannot escape. “ Office politics” is how we as individuals interact with each other. The problem is that “office politics” is generally defined, as the pursuit of a personal agenda/goals/self- interest that more often than not at the expense of others, and is thus negative to say the least. It is a strategy that by its very nature means there are winners and losers. There are those individuals who spend each day honing their battle skills for personal gain with little or no regard for the casualties. The rise to the top, to shine and advance in your career is usually seen as the need to step on others. In many environments, the underlying culture is not how hard you work or how well you do your  job , but rather how well you “play the game” and this is what determines your success. Tremendous energy is expended getting your ideas, your agenda and your profile to the top, and is defined by a “win at all costs/eat or be eaten” mentality. Even though people you interact with dislike office politics, they feel they have no choice but to partake as a tool of survival.  All this negative energy consumes time; is a physical and mental drain and therefore a detriment to the bottom line.

Ironically, we are living in a world where we are fixated on converting waste into positive energy. Do we spend enough time thinking about turning the wasted energy of “people politics” into a positive and productive resource? The answer is easy-NO.

To do so, we must face several realities. Interacting with people is challenging, as we all have strengths, shortcomings, quirks and idiosyncrasies. We are generally not very good judges of our own shortcomings. I recently observed a training session, where the format involved participants presenting to their group. The video taped presentations were then played back and critiqued. I was particularly intrigued by the reaction of those participants, who by nature thought they were “so perfect and opinionated”. Having now viewed themselves on the screen, their perspective was very different. This issue is further magnified by what I call the “hide behind the rock syndrome” or in other words, “it’s not my fault”. In the work place, taking responsibility and acknowledging room for improvement is not always seen as a wise career move. However, correcting this perception does pay big dividends for the organization and is a first step toward positive employee interaction.

To grow, improve and by implication achieve our own self-interest, it is imperative that both management and employees identify strength and weakness in the work environment, without leaving casualties on the sidelines. If we concede to sports analogies in discussing office politics (winning/loosing/team), then let’s use football as a case study. Blockers tend to be large powerful dominating figures that are ideal for protecting their quarterback- offensively. The blocker can also be a vital defensive player who can use his power and size against the opposing quarterback. The receiver tends to be lighter, faster more agile to catch the ball and run the touch down. Both are key members of the team and have an incentive to work together. If the quarterback gets sacked, the receiver does not get a chance to score a touchdown and the entire team loses.

In hockey, the players who shoot right or left, bring particular strengths to the team and offset the shooter on the opposite wing. Both can learn from each other with the common goal of scoring. They obviously want to excel, but doing so at the expense of the team is self-defeating. Continuing with the sports analogy, communication is also a key to turning self-interest/politics into a positive resource. The left-winger must communicate to the right-winger that they are open to pass the puck. Together, they can score and they both get credit and win the game. You cannot succeed as a team unless everyone communicates. Just ask the America’s Cup sailing team, where turning the rudder and moving the sails in unison, means the difference between a disaster and winning the America’s Cup. Both managers and co-workers must do a better job in identifying each other’s strengths and weakness to harness their individual strengths and offset weakness. For many years I worked with someone who was masterful at calming irate, difficult clients. I was in awe of her skill at making difficult people love her. I was the more strategic/creative thinker, and as a team we worked well together and had countless wins.

Lastly, culture is key. The days where managers saw merit in letting people compete like the Gladiators in the arena can only result in casualties. The casualties have real costs, and adversely impact the total organization, but also raise the question; as to whether the victors are the kind of people you want long term. Their goal is their own personal success, not that of your total organization. The tone of the “right” culture must be set from the start. To quote, noted psychologist, Benjamin Spock “ you don’t instill discipline once the child is spoiled.”  You end up with a rebellious child, who will forever be a problem”. Again, using the sports analogy, successful rowing teams make a decision from day one whether they want to work solo or as a team.

The adage of “how we do it better and smarter” will work, if you want the engineer on your team to help you build the bridge over the swamp filled with alligators and snakes. Only when organizations recognize the by- product of office politics can it then be converted to a positive resource that helps us advance and succeed.

Written by Mark Cohan,
Partner, Resonate Search Group

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