We all want to run a business where our employees are happy and fulfilled, buzzing to step into the office every single day.
But when you’re building a team that’s full of very different people—with a diverse range of skills, backgrounds, and personality traits—even the smallest disagreement can cause working relationships to become strained or fractured.
While some level of workplace politics is inevitable, there are steps that business owners and managers can take to curb office gossip and political behavior before they get out of hand.
No solution will ever completely prevent politically savvy individuals from attempting to get ahead (and hey, a little bit of healthy competition isn’t the worst). But by arming yourself with a handful of tactics that can diffuse a tense situation, you’ll quickly learn how to build trust with your employees and create a more positive work environment for everyone.
What Do We Mean by “Office Politics”?
In every population group throughout history, people have done whatever they can to protect their own interests. It’s human nature—it’s built into the very fabric of our existence.
But what does a trait that ensured our very survival as a species look like in the modern, corporate world? What are examples of office politics? When we think about how workplace politics look in reality, we’re often talking about scenarios like:
- Co-workers gossiping about or backstabbing another colleague in the workplace or on social media
- Rumors spreading around the office about a particular person and their work or personal life
- Team members deliberately withholding information to negatively impact another employee, like allowing their co-worker to make a mistake before approaching a manager and offering to correct it themselves
It sounds pretty bad, right? And it is. We may have thought that these types of behaviors were left far behind in our school days, but that’s sadly not the case. In fact, our motivations for behaving like this really don’t change very much from when we’re young. Ultimately, it all comes back to seeing some kind of personal gain as possible at the expense of others.
In our day-to-day lives, this would typically look like social advancement through the formation of cliques or popularity groups.
In a workplace, most people are hungry to achieve a position of authority, progress up the career ladder, and earn more money. That level of self-interest and potential for competition means your business is ripe for a highly-charged political environment.
How Can You Tell If Your Workplace Is Politicized?
As the examples we highlighted above show, office politics can run the gamut—which means symptoms can vary from company to company.
But, if you’re curious whether a political atmosphere is overtaking your own workplace, here are a few telltale signs you can look out for:
- You see various cliques and alliances forming on your staff
- You witness frequent whispers, closed-door meetings, or even overtly passive aggressive remarks in team meetings
- You don’t have a consistent or reliable system for making termination or promotion decisions
- You keep your employees isolated from your decision-making processes
- You notice people going around or over people’s heads with issues, rather than addressing them directly
And of course, if you’ve received feedback from employees—through one-on-ones, performance reviews, exit interviews, team meetings, anonymous surveys, and more—that office politics are running rampant, that’s a surefire sign that you need to take action.
How Do Workplace Politics Impact Your Team Members?
Negative organizational politics can have a serious impact on the overall job satisfaction of your employees. It’s important to remember that, although office politics are often a problem for larger corporations, startups and small businesses aren’t immune. Just because you may have fewer people on your team doesn’t mean that personal agendas are always set aside for the good of the company.
Whether or not an individual is being personally targeted, the negative connotations that surround organizational politics can leave employees feeling uncomfortable and unsure about their future with the business.
A 2019 study found that nearly one in five Americans have quit a job because of a toxic workplace culture and, in most cases, that’s come down to disagreements with colleagues. It’s hardly surprising. After all, most people don’t want to work in a tense atmosphere where they feel as if they can’t trust anyone.
Unless issues are openly discussed and action is quickly taken, you’ll likely see your employee engagement dropping and turnover rapidly increasing. This creates a disruptive environment for everyone, particularly for those left behind to pick up the extra workload.
It takes hard work to break out of a cycle caused by negative politics, but it is possible and will greatly enhance the well-being and professional life of your team.
So, How Can Organizational Politics Be Prevented or Resolved?
You’ve seen what can happen when political activities go unchecked in an organization and you’re ready to take steps to turn the ship around or prevent a downward spiral in your own business.
But how do you handle politics in the workplace? Let’s take a look at a few steps you can take.
1. Rethink Your Hiring Process
You might be thinking, “What does recruitment have to do with diffusing an already negative situation?” You’re right—this may not help you address what you’re currently dealing with. But going all the way back to the beginning is usually where you can start to see signs of future problems, and hiring is no different.
There’s only so much you can do to vet candidates ahead of time and you’ll never really know how someone truly behaves within the team until they’re fully integrated. But there are certainly signs that you can look for.
In a long corporate career, you’ll likely run into individuals who routinely exhibit what’s known as machiavellianism, or cunning and manipulative behavior with the aim of achieving power. These folks are often the ones who will charm and schmooze the company managers and other stakeholders to keep themselves top of mind when it comes to promotions or raises.
Need an example? Maybe you’ve come across a leader who frequently claimed praise meant for their whole team but was ruthless and aggressive about blaming others for mistakes or problems.
Obviously, these are candidates you’d prefer to avoid hiring and bringing into your business in the first place. But how do you spot those traits in an interview situation?
One classic example is to set up interactions between the candidate and different members of the team, from your receptionists or assistants all the way up to the head of the company. Monitor and collect feedback about the interpersonal skills of the candidate from each individual employee. Are they dismissive and reserved with an assistant, but open and chatty with the CEO? Or are they equally as friendly and polite to everyone, regardless of role?
You can learn more than you think through careful observation during the recruitment process. So, take advantage of those opportunities to discover potential personality flaws—they could become a significant problem in your organization if you choose to hire that candidate.
2. Create an Open and Transparent Company Culture
We’re not saying that every employee needs to know the nitty gritty of what’s happening behind-the-scenes in the business or have input into every single one of your decision-making processes. But keeping communication lines open and providing opportunities for feedback will help to ensure that your company culture remains transparent.
As your business grows, you’ll naturally start to implement more systems and processes that move employees further away from you as the business owner or your other higher-level managers. That’s natural—but it can also leave your employees feeling siloed or even forgotten, which can make them feel like they have no choice but to use political maneuvers to be seen and heard.
So, make it your priority to keep everyone on the same page about what’s working well or any changes that are coming down the pipeline, especially as your business grows. Holding regular company-wide meetings can stop rumors from spreading and foster a greater degree of trust across all levels of the business.
3. Implement a Fair Rewards System
When it comes to promotions, raises, or even a pat on the back for a job well done, treating everyone equally is one of the best ways to keep employees happy. Obvious favoritism from a manager or leader is one of biggest drivers of workplace gossip.
Encourage your managers to think about how they’ve been distributing positive feedback. Have they been praising one team or team member more often than others? Or have they been evenly distributing positive feedback across their staff? Try to make sure all employees feel like their work is being recognized, not just a select few, and remember to use specifics when giving kudos. That way, employees will see that praise is related directly to a task they did, rather than a personal preference of the manager.
A standardized rewards system is also another opportunity for you to improve transparency within your broader company culture. When employees know what progression in the business looks like, they’re often more motivated to work toward their own personal goals for career development.
For example, if your sales team’s bonuses are based on a set sales goal, ensure that everyone has targets that are proportional to their level of experience or time with the business. This leaves no room for questioning why one employee may have received more or less and promotes a fair and open environment that encourages all employees to thrive (without having to stab each other in the back).
4. Enhance Opportunities for Team Building
Social networks within your company may naturally form based around different teams or interest groups. Your workers who are on job sites might frequently grab lunch together. Or, perhaps your employees who are also parents will bond over sharing resources with each other.
But that doesn’t always leave much space for interacting with other people (who they might have less in common with). When there’s little time for socializing with colleagues outside your normal sphere of influence, gossiping and politicking can run rampant.
That’s exactly why you should introduce opportunities for colleagues to build relationships and interact across the organization, both within work contexts and in more informal settings. You could do this a number of ways, including:
- Starting a cross-functional project that brings together people who haven’t previously worked closely with each other
- Instituting a fun company tradition (think something like annual office Olympics, desk decorating contests, monthly trivia contests, or more) that pushes people outside of their normal cliques
- Creating learning opportunities (like dedicated Slack channels or employee groups) where employees can connect over shared interests or experiences
Collaboration with new people can often lead to more creative ideas, along with the chance to get to know someone new in a new team or department. You never know who could strike up a friendship thanks to a group project or a company-wide holiday lunch!
5. Demonstrate Strong Leadership and Discipline around Office Politics
When you’re running a company and managing a team, leading by example is often the best policy. This is especially important when you’re considering younger employees or those moving into their first positions of leadership. You or other managers may be considered mentors, with these team members looking at your interactions as a template for their own. When positive behavior is modeled, it will encourage similar behavior across the business.
Beyond that, in order to nip negative politics in the bud, you need to be the first person to pay attention to it and shut it down. You shouldn’t sweep it under the rug or assume it’ll work itself out.
Of course, there’s no reason to rule with an iron fist straight away. Tailor how you handle each case with an appropriate level of action based on what the issue is and how many times you’ve had to deal with this situation and the specific individuals involved. Ask clarifying questions (without jumping to conclusions) to get to the bottom of what’s causing the negative atmosphere so that the issue can be resolved effectively.
When it comes to preventing this type of problem in the first place, use things like an employee handbook, training opportunities, Q&A sessions, and candid feedback to set clear expectations for employee behavior moving forward so that everybody knows what is and isn’t appropriate.
It’s also vital to ensure that the other leaders in your company are aware of how to handle these situations within their own teams and when they should consider escalating their concerns higher Up or to your human resources team if you have one. That way, you’ll know there’s a consistent approach across departments and seniority levels.
Want a Positive Workplace? You Need to Address Office Politics
Even with the best intentions and the strongest efforts, your small business isn’t going to be perfect. You’re bound to still run into some employee conflicts and tough interactions.
However, that doesn’t mean you need to let workplace politics spiral out of control. Use the above tips to respond to situations and proactively set employee behavior standards that are intentional and specific.
You’ll be well on your way to creating a happy and engaging work environment for your employees (and save yourself some headaches and hassles too).