Managing People Using The Value Immersion Process
No Office Politics
Chapter 3.2

WE REJECT OFFICE POLITICS

A principle value of an organization should be that office politics will not be tolerated.

This is one of the most important issues of all those I have discussed.  If you don’t remember anything I have written so far in this book, remember this chapter.  “Office politics” are the most distractive of all maladies organizations suffer.  It is impossible to obtain the best from your employees if you allow politics to infect your organization.  An organization where office politics occur is guaranteed to be less efficient, less productive, and less effective and will produce a much lower quality product than any organization where politics do not exist. I call the infection the “Washington Syndrome” because it is my observation that virtually all of the government bureaucracies in Washington DC are hotbeds of office politics.

WHAT ARE OFFICE POLITICS

What do I mean by “office politics?”  I am sure that most of you who are reading this book either have been, or are currently, victims of office politics.  They are generated by a pervasive atmosphere of perverted competition. Brutal competition is probably a better characterization.  What it amounts to is people trying to build their career at the expense of others.  There is backstabbing and plotting against one another.  Politics arise when people are so desperate to get ahead that they are willing to do just about anything (except just doing the best job they can) to anyone to make the boss think they are better than others.  These people, in my opinion, are generally individuals who, either consciously or subconsciously, believe they do not have, or in fact do not have, the skills, ability, knowledge, intelligence, or whatever else it takes to be successful on their own merits.  Rather than work hard and do their best, they use these tactics as a shortcut to advancement.  As a result they stoop to destroying, as best they can, their peers.  By this I mean they do everything they can to criticize other’s work, and/or find fault in any characteristics of other persons in the organization.  They will bad mouth people both within the group, and to their managers.  They question others’ performance; denigrate others’ work products, find, usually in hindsight, ways to point out deficiencies in others’ work.  They will engage in sabotage to create the appearance of poor performance of others.  They belittle people and boast of their own superiority.  They will cultivate alliances against other individuals.  The fundamental goal is to make them look better than everyone else.  The belief is that by sabotaging everyone else so they will look bad, the perpetrator will stand out as performing far better than everyone else.

I used the word “infect” above.  Office politics is an infection because it spreads.  If within the group one or more people play this game, others who otherwise would not, must also play in order to survive.  Rather than just trying to do the best at their jobs, they must spend time defending themselves and/or fighting back.  That, or they just isolate themselves and play as low a profile as possible.

OFFICE POLITICS ARE PERVERTED COMPETITION

Many will argue that competition is good and motivates people to do their best.  They will hold sports up as an example of how competition stimulates people to do their absolute best and beyond.  There is no argument with this observation.  However, there is a profound difference between competition in sports and competition in the work place.  Sports have strict rules, and there are referees to make sure the rules are followed.  But office politics perverts competition.  There are no rules or umpires in a work place environment; it is “every man for himself.”  There is no regulation of what you can and cannot do to each other in this maniacal drive for advancement and power.  As a result the competition can be vicious and cruel and there is nothing to stop or control this behavior.  Thus people get seriously hurt and not a pulled muscle or sprained ankle that athletes suffer.  It is the kind of hurt that ruins peoples’ lives and often that of their families as well.  So this kind of poison must be avoided at all costs.

EXAMPLES

The first time I really became aware of this phenomenon was not in an office setting. I was an undergraduate student at UCLA taking a chemistry class that included several pre-med students.  At that time medical school was extremely hard to get into, with only the top of the top of the classes accepted.  So it was in individuals interest to see their fellow students be less successful.  I was shocked to see students doing everything they could to make their peers fail.  They would sabotage each other’s lab experiments, claim that their opponents were cheating, and every other thing you could imagine to get ahead.  How naive I was. Fortunately I was only an engineering major so I was not a threat to the pre-meds so I was not subjected to this abuse.

I really didn’t get it until I observed, and was a victim of, this behavior in other contexts.  There have been many over the course of my career, and each time I observed, or even had to face, office politics in action I became more convinced of its destructive impact.

One case in my own organization involved a person who apparently saw an opportunity when a supervisor, not her’s, was eliminating a unit that was seriously losing money.  She used this service in her work, but rather than try to make her case as to how this service supported her, and examine the quite valid options that the supervisor had set up to meet her needs, she chose to attempt to destroy his credibility.  She tried every trick in the book to discredit this supervisor.  She badmouthed his performance, not only to me, but also to the whole department.  She said the deficit in the unit that he was eliminating was his fault.  She tried to find examples of him not treating his staff right.  She, and this is the kicker, tried to get that unit assigned to her, which would have resulted in her making a higher salary.

There was more, but you get the idea.  In fact, the last item was dominant.  She was really trying to take over the units that the person she was attacking supervised.  She had “lusted” over his job for a long time, so she used this opportunity to try to build her career at his expense.  What she didn’t know was that the supervisor and I had been trying to deal with this problem for a long time.  In fact he had tried to defend this unit several times to me.  But, “…the handwriting was on the wall…” The demand for this service had simply evaporated because technology had evolved to the point that people could do the job themselves.  So, finally we together agreed that it was time to make a change (by the way we created a soft landing for the person affected, who ended up with a better job).  So the person who was trying to use political tactics made a bad choice as to who to attack.  She didn’t last long in our group!

I WOULD NOT TOLERATE OFFICE POLITICS

It may be clear to you from all of the other pronouncements I have made in previous chapters that I really do my absolute best to support people.  I make sure that no matter the circumstances, I try to take care of them, give them the benefit of the doubt, help them to improve, and solve their problems.  Well, and I am putting this in all caps to emphasize the point:  IN THE ORGANIZATIONS UNDER MY SUPERVISION, THE ONLY REASON THAT YOU CAN GET FIRED ON THE SPOT IS ENGAGING IN “OFFICE POLITICS.”  Now, in reality in the bureaucracy I lived in, it was nearly impossible to fire someone on the spot, but trust me, anyone who committed this sin was the “living dead” and would be gone no matter how long it took me.  Case in point, the person described above was “out of here” as soon as I had an excuse to do a lay off.



WHAT ARE THE IMPACTS OF OFFICE POLITICS

Why am I so “hard over” on this issue?  There are a multitude of reasons:

Let’s start with productivity.  When people are subjected to an environment characterized by office politics they spend a substantial part of their time either:  worrying about being attacked, defending themselves against those attacks, figuring out retaliatory attacks or just planning and implementing strategies to advance at the expense of others.  Just think about how much time these activities consume.  How much time is wasted strategizing against the other guy, trying to defend yourself against an attack, retaliating, or just worrying?  It is an enormous amount of time that is not being spent doing the work of the organization.  Even if you do not have an environment where people are trying to do their best, but just want to do enough to get by, office politics like this will distract them to the point where they are even less productive.  It takes a lot of energy to fight these battles.  After all you are, for all intents and purposes, fighting for your life – your home, food on the table for your kids, the new Lexis in your garage, whatever. The fight becomes more important than the work of your group!  Just think how all of this reduces the productivity in your organization.

Now, how about motivation?  As I said above there are those who believe competition is good and will argue that this kind of competition leads to people trying harder to do their best.  I assert that in fact it leads to people being less motivated to do their best.  They perceive that no matter how hard they work, or how much they are committed the politics negate all of what they do.  The politics are what matters.  Productivity, quality, and hard work are subordinate because the political environment negates them.  So why work hard, why try to do your best, why be committed to your organization?  A sense of futility overcomes people.  The work of the organization becomes secondary because it takes so much energy to play the political game and survive.

What about the quality of the product?  My simple answer is how can the best product be produced when everyone is spending a large fraction of their time playing politics?  However, the impact goes even deeper.  If their political opponents sabotage their work, that product will not be as good as it could be.

Then, as I mentioned above, some people choose to hide out.  They try to keep as low a profile as possible.  Their strategy is to behave in such a way as to not represent a threat to people who are playing politics.  How do you do this?  First you go precisely by the book.  Of course, the book is often, or I should say more often than not, wrong.  Also, you try to avoid doing anything to heighten your visibility, like doing an outstanding job or exhibiting creativity.  Why?  Because doing so could be perceived as upstaging the political person(s).  Then that person(s) would launch an attack, which is just what you are trying to avoid.  The result is the quality of the work of employees who are hiding out is low.

So what does this do to the work environment?  It is pervaded by evil rather than support.  It is cold and not nurturing.  It is characterized by ruthlessness.  It stimulates unethical behavior, rather than honesty.  It makes trust almost impossible.  It provides very little incentive for people to strive to be the best.  In fact, in this environment people are not rewarded for excellence in their jobs, but excellence in fighting the political battles.  In short, the work environment is as far to the opposite as you can get from the type of environment that we want to create.

OFFICE POLITICS DESTROYS HAPPINESS

Here is the downside that is critically important to me.  Except for those few people who thrive on the fight, a culture characterized by office politics basically makes people unhappy in their jobs.  Most of us just want to come to work, do our jobs the best we can, and go home.  Instead you must engage in the constant battle to keep your job, you have feelings of uncertainty, insecurity, and fear.  You are not able to trust anyone, so strong collegial relationships do not develop.  You do not feel you are doing your best at your job – there is little sense of fulfillment.

Even worse is that all of these problems and feelings carry over into people’s home life.  As we talked about in previous chapters, it is almost impossible not to think about what is going on at work when you are at home.  So generally all of these negative feelings pervade peoples’ whole lives, not just their work lives.  That is truly sad, because the happiness of the family is also degraded.

When people are subjected to a work environment like this, how committed, how loyal, how motivated do you think they will be?  Will they really want to go the last mile for you?  Will they look forward to coming to work?  Will they get satisfaction from their jobs? Will you have an efficient productive organization?  Will you be able to produce the best product?  Of course, the answer to all these questions is an emphatic “no”!

THE WASHINGTON SYNDROME  

Recall the Washington Syndrome I mentioned above.  Although politics pervade many bureaucracies, for illustrative purposes, here I will give my (possibly a bit exaggerated and certainly cynical) view of government bureaucracies in Washington DC because they represent the most visible and most seriously infected.  The political environment that exists in the Senate, House of Representatives, and the Executive Branch represent a culture that is emulated in the bureaucracies.  This is why nothing seems to ever really get done by the various agencies in Washington (just like in Congress).  All you need to do is look at the performance of these organizations – slow, poor quality, indecisive, by the book (which doesn’t fit most circumstances, but right or wrong, it is safe) to see that they suffer from some cancerous disease.  People are spending a large fraction of their time engaged in politics rather than doing the country’s business.  Just think about it.  How much could get done for our country if the people in Washington focused on work, rather that paying attention to the internal politics of their organization?  The government would cost a whole lot less, and we might be able to get a lot more done.   Now it is gridlocked.  Only a small portion of the real mission of the organization is addressed because most people in the bureaucracy is positioning himself or herself to, in their minds, advance their careers or at least prevent them from being destroyed.

In fact, their careers probably will be advanced, because the tragedy is that at every level, managers and supervisors, allow, and even encourage, this behavior.  After all, it is the environment that they grew up in.  Advancement is based more on how effectively you can beat down your peers, rather than how good a job you do.   No one really thinks about what could be done if managers sought to create an environment where people strive to be the best at their jobs, rather than the best at politics.  As I see it, even those people who do try to do their best lose in the end because they are consumed by the dog-eat-dog culture where winning the fight is more important than getting the job done.

While the leaders in bureaucracies, such as those that pervade our government, profess to have lofty goals for benefiting the taxpayers, their real, unspoken, and possibly even subconscious, goal is to protect and build their bureaucracies.  Just look at how it works:  the bureaucracy is not getting the job done, but the solution is not to become more efficient and increase productivity, it is to argue for more resources.  So it is not in the manager’s best interest to have their people to do their best because if they did, they might actually get the job done, and the managers would not be able to enlarge their organizations by adding more resources.  Thus, they cannot justify being advanced in their careers and salaries.  So, in my biased and cynical view, managers encourage political wrangling among their subordinates to minimize their efficiency so they can justify more resources.

HOW TO CURE THE DISEASE

So, how do we as managers prevent office politics from infecting our organization?  The answer is really quite simple.  You as the boss must make it unequivocally clear that that type of behavior is not acceptable, period.  As I said above, my one rule was that the only way a person could get fired on the spot was to get caught engaging in politics – attempting to build his career on the backs of fellow workers.  You must really mean it.  I did not hesitate to state this value publicly, and, when it became necessary to implement the one rule, I made sure that people saw I really meant that it was fatal to engage in office politics.  And, of course, you must “walk the talk” and try to avoid being political in your own behavior.

So, office politics create an atmosphere where it is impossible to get the best from people.  Every effort has to be made to eradicate politics from your organization.  The way to achieve this eradication is to make it highly visible to your staff that you will not tolerate behavior such as this under any circumstances, and set an example by your own behavior.
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