Unfortunately, the end of the stressful mid-term elections marked the beginning of the general elections. There is no escape from national politics, but you can take better control over something that can be personally-traumatic to everyone working in your small business: office politics.
So, Exactly What are Office Politics?
Hopefully, your employees like what they do — and the company where they spend so much time every day. Of course, they also want recognition and rewards in the form of pay raises and promotions. As such, it’s likely that a degree of competition is natural and healthy, as long as it involves performing superior work or even taking on extra jobs that fall outside of their job descriptions.
When the competition turns dirty, however, your team members may be resorting to office politics. When they make errors, they point fingers. They cause errors by misinforming their co-workers about key facts. They may even become overly-complimentary to their supervisors or brings gifts. These are all signs of office politics, and it can create a toxic environment for everyone.
Is it Possible to Eliminate a Political Atmosphere in the Workplace?
So, how do you ensure that your company provides an atmosphere that values skills and talent rather than a political war zone? Here are some ideas to get you on the right path.
Start by hiring the right people
The initial interview is a great time to identify an applicant’s attributes, but it is also a valuable way to help spot office politicians before you make an unwise job offer. An obvious red flag is if they respond to your question about past failures by blaming others in previous jobs. Somewhat more subtle signs might be if they brag about being the best or smartest in too many things. Few applicants will openly discuss past interpersonal conflicts, but any comment that negatively reflects on prior co-workers might be an indicator of an overly-competitive spirit that could potentially create discord within your team.
Listening for positive attitudes is equally important. For example, take note of answers that show a respect for the team — even if you’re looking for a self-starter. On one hand, applicant responses should not indicate over-reliance on others to do their jobs; however, a person who describes past personal successes by giving approving nods to other employees on the project is generally not an office politician.
Reward the right things
A pat on the back goes a long way to encourage employees to take personal responsibility over their advancement rather than climb over others to get to the top. Employees with lots of ideas (even if they sometimes result in failures) are more valuable than the ones who play it safe while trying to get ahead by belittling others.
Of course, positive feedback doesn’t work for everyone, so remain aware of the office atmosphere. It won’t be hard to spot the individuals who unfairly lay blame on others — or even those who seem to toot their own horns a bit too often. Obvious political behavior requires more proactivity, so feel free to make your attitudes toward office politics crystal clear to offenders. You never want to criticize employees in public, but there’s nothing wrong with taking them aside to address their issues.
Avoid pigeonholing your employees
Everyone has assigned work that needs to get done, but when employees display interest in other areas, you should encourage exploration. Here’s a personal case in point. When I was a long-term word processing temp at a company, a VP caught me complaining about how things were done in the office. He could have removed me instantly, but he liked my ideas and brought me in to a newly-defined full-time job where I headed up automation changes that transformed the company’s efficiency — and jettisoned off toward a new, long-time career.
An important note here: I was not playing politics, and I did not take anyone’s job. The VP knew the difference between spreading wings and appropriating someone else’s job. As I got to know him over many years, it was clear that interested employees got training and opportunities for advancement. New hires were a last resort.
Mentor and motivate
Even if you take great care to avoid hiring political people, your employees might engage in overly-competitive behavior if they perceive that it’s the only way to get ahead. On the other hand, if they know that the door’s open for extra accomplishment and advancement, they are more likely to work hard and even take on a leadership role when co-workers need some help.
This is where mentorship comes into the picture. Small business owners typically get to know their employees quite well. Take note of those who have a natural curiosity beyond their own responsibilities, and be prepared to step in to encourage questions and offer growth opportunities. When you need to fill more responsible positions, you’ll know who can slip into those roles … no politics necessary.
You can’t force people to befriend each other, but you can create an atmosphere that naturally creates respectful behavior while discouraging political game-playing. When you have a company culture that does not overly-reprimand water cooler chit-chat or occasional outbursts of laughter, your employees relax. They see themselves as part of a close-knit team rather than competitors. Some might even form lifelong friendships.
Everyone Can Enjoy a Political Respite
The 2020 elections are more than a year away, but the 24/7 news cycle already makes it difficult to avoid the stress. Although everyone faces workplace stress from time to time, political game-playing can add unnecessary negativity into the mix.
Keep office politics at bay, and your team can enjoy a peaceful oasis in a national sea of madness.