By: Dale A. Hicks, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist & Certified CEO Effectiveness Executive Coach
“I love my work, but I hate all of the politics!” I hear this over and over again from friends, colleagues and clients. Office politics can destroy the workplace and have a dramatic impact on employees’ daily job satisfaction, levels of stress, creativity, productivity, absenteeism, and willingness or ability to be a fully contributing member of an organization’s primary mission.
Office politics, driven by self-interest rather than a focus on a shared vision, can be extremely costly to an organization and, most often, reflects a leader who is lacking in self-knowledge and the ability to effectively manage the interpersonal atmosphere within the workplace. In such an organization, employees are motivated to engage in activities that they perceive to serve their own immediate and long-term interests, which often are not aligned with the interests of the organization. In a business setting, this can result in behaviors that subtly sabotage positive outcomes, diminish creativity and innovation, reduce the quality of products and services, reduce customer satisfaction and lead to a significant competitive disadvantage.
This process of deterioration in the workplace atmosphere, the quality of the business’s key products or services, and reduced productivity and profits may become obvious to the leaders and to other stakeholders only after the employees have experienced many hallmarks of destructive workplace politics for quite some time. Those on the “front line” often will see the indications and experience the ramifications long before. These include leaders who direct financial and informational resources on the basis of favoritism, rather than on merit or alignment with the company’s mission or vision; leaders who limit or shut down lines of communication and who discourage honest feedback that is inconsistent with their own self-interests or beliefs; leaders who punish employees (through ignoring them, giving poor evaluations, providing fewer or no opportunities for salary increases or promotions, making transfers or giving undesirable assignments, etc.) for asking unpopular questions or challenging the leader. Such organizations often see the development of coalitions: leaders and favored employees who seek to maintain power and control; employees who band together to gain a sense of safety and common interests (and who vent their disrespect and dislike for leadership); employees who passively (and not so passively) resist a leadership group that they perceive to be unjust and “corrupt” and who “check-out” of their workplace through calling in sick, taking excessive breaks, dedicating their time to unproductive activities (personal business, playing video games, keeping up with their social media) and who generally perform at the minimum level that will allow them to retain their paycheck. Through many channels, employees learn that it is not hard work, initiative, responsibility or dedication that is rewarded in their organization, so they learn to focus their efforts in other directions. How unfortunate for employees who, if less constrained and more appropriately inspired, would “love” their work and perform at their peak. How unfortunate for all of the other stakeholders who are deprived of the optimal organizational performance that could have been.
Only a leader – or leadership team – that is willing to seek genuine self-knowledge and to understand their impact on the entire organization will be able to avoid or recover from the destructive effects of office politics. And only then can an organization as a whole begin to progress toward its optimal level of functioning, find its own greatness and maintain a competitive advantage!