Pick your battles for better self-leadership

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles

– Sun Tzu

During the culture diagnosis stage of our work we encounter multiple scenarios that contribute to our definition of organization culture. Because office, workplace or organizational politics are centered on formal and informal power and authority, the sources, drivers, networks and hubs of office politics are some of the indicators of the organization culture and offer us insight into the real pulse of the organization.

Positive office politics can drive advocacy for employee welfare and adoption of elements that improve work conditions. The drivers of positive office politics act as a voice for the less articulate or less courageous. Identifying and empowering these influencers and drivers creates channels for employee voice and engagement.

Negative office politics often result in turf battles or silent wars fought in car lots, corridors, canteens and on email. Employees, consciously or unconsciously, choose different approaches to manage or survive office politics. We have seen aggressors who choose to actively confront, ‘fund’ and drive turf wars, spectators who choose to observe from the sidelines either because they think they are above it or not strong enough for battle and cheerleaders who do not actively participate but who take a side and cheer from the sidelines.

Unfortunately, these battles are not as victimless many proponents of the ‘man up’ theory would like us to believe. Office politics breeds fear, mistrust, silo mentalities, inequity and harbors open communication, engagement and motivation. Eventually it affects how people feel about work, about their colleagues and ultimately affects how people do their jobs. We cannot leave it unaddressed.

‘I am keeping quiet/out of it for the sake of peace’ is a statement we hear often.

What is peace anyway? Is it peaceful when ‘powerless’ or absent individuals become victims of office politics and their careers are destroyed? Is it peaceful when a decision or idea is rejected even when it was the best for the organization simply because it did not fit into someone’s agenda? Is it peaceful when bad or potentially harmful decisions are made to suit a set of individuals and no one speaks up? I am sure you would agree that the answer is ‘no’ to all these questions.

In our musing we identified several things organizations can do to manage negative office politics.

Choosing the Battle
Nothing is too small to ignore. There is a running risk of leaders ignoring office politics as trivial. Silence reeks of compliance. Leaders need to show interest in the conversations within the organization and keep their ears on the ground through a network of employees. This ensures they a sense of current ‘hot topics’ and loyalty dynamics. Leadership interventions may include expression of opinion on the issue through key influencers or raising the issue for open discussion. Propagators of negative and harmful office politics should however be managed by calling them out and in extreme cases through a disciplinary process.

Transparency and Open Communication
Creating an environment of transparency requires frequent sharing of information, leadership that speaks candidly about issues affecting the organization and creating feedback channels that enable safe sharing or questioning. A collaboration messaging i.e. using phases such ‘we have this challenge’, ‘we have made this mistake’ drives ownership of the issues and ensures all feel responsible for successes and failures alike.

Open communication and two-way channels equip employees with the understanding that they can check information and therefore reduces fear, a factor often used by propagators of office politics.

Leadership at All Levels
How well office politics thrive is an indicator of the leadership capability within an organization. At a personal level, individuals need to develop a good sense of self-leadership by focusing on their objectives within the organization, the path for delivery that they need to follow as well as the measurement of their results. Creating environments where focus is on achievement reduces the chances of individuals engaging in pointless politics. Indeed, the best way to quell office politics is to starve it of participants by increasing individual engagement through alignment.

At an organization leadership level, courage to speak up and confront negative politics needs to be developed. The assumption that office politics is harmless is wrong. Most important leaders must not engage in politics and must be called out when they do. Conscious leadership demands leadership by example for a positive environment to emerge.

Office politics is a powerful driver of employee motivation and must not be ignored.

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