While office politics can be a positive force in any company, the downsides often overshadow the positives. Fundamentally, workplace politics is about employees managing relationships with coworkers in order to perform well in their roles. However, leaders need to keep it under control.
Negative behaviors such as manipulative power plays, backstabbing, and spreading false information can heighten workplace stress, damage personal relationships, and undermine productivity. Office politics can also impact staff turnover. A recent study by the Society for Human Resource Management revealed that 20 percent of Americans have left a job in the past five years due to a toxic workplace culture (1). Anecdotally, this figure is the same in Australia.
It’s difficult to avoid office politics, but it can be kept to a minimum with the right direction from leadership. Here are 10 succinct suggestions to minimise office politics and build a more supportive, collaborative work environment:
1. Give Employees a Voice in the Hiring Process
Getting the opinions of existing team members is a simple but effective way to ensure that new hires are a good fit for your team. After all, these are the people who will be interacting with the new recruits every day, so their opinions should matter. Involve relevant team members in the interview process and bring existing and potential employees together for an informal ‘coffee’ meeting to gain valuable feedback from your team before deciding.
2. Facilitate a Transparent Culture
Transparent work environments tend to experience less bad behavior and fewer underhand antics from employees. To improve team harmony, the most successful leaders encourage honest conversations, tolerate mistakes, and welcome constructive feedback. Employees should know that they’re expected to voice any concerns immediately, ask for help when necessary, and allow others to make mistakes without holding grudges.
To help build a transparent culture, regular one-on-one meetings and group meetings need to be scheduled at consistent intervals. Leaders can also maintain an open-door policy, where employees feel encouraged to give feedback to those in charge. Crucially, employees need to see that their feedback is taken seriously. In a study by experience management firm Qualtrics, only 30 percent of employees surveyed said that their feedback is acted upon by their employer (2).
3. Address Conflicts Head On
People involved in negative office politics like to do it discreetly and often try to hide their actions. When leaders spot any negative behavior, such as gossip or bullying, they should bring it into the open as soon as possible. Unresolved conflicts will only result in lower productivity and decreased team morale. If it goes unchecked, this type of behaviour not only damages team cohesion, but it can have a severe impact on employees’ mental health. For this reason, leaders need to meet with individuals to discuss conflicts as soon as they arise and cut off malicious rumours before they spiral out of control.
4. Break Up Cliques
While strong bonds between employees can cultivate a sense of camaraderie, unhelpful cliques can form. This can make some employees feel excluded and will ultimately undermine team cohesion. Leaders should therefore watch out for negative cliques that may alienate certain individuals and damage productivity.
One way to neutralize harmful subgroups is to mix up teams – when possible – where individuals are given an opportunity to work alongside different team members. As well as helping employees form new workplace bonds, this can also encourage innovative thinking and accelerate problem-solving.
5. Identify Team Players
Team members who are passionate, efficient, collaborative, and believe in a company’s vision are a great asset to any company’s culture. These individuals have the power to motivate colleagues and can act as role models for other staff. Leaders should ask for their help in building employee relationships, improving team collaboration, and boosting team morale.
6. Provide Avenues for Feedback
Without an avenue for honest feedback, employees will often stay silent about their problems or resort to gossip to vent their frustrations. One-to-one meetings or interviews conducted by neutral individuals are a good place to start, providing employees with a safe environment to share their concerns.
Regular, anonymous pulse surveys will also help you collect honest feedback and track employees’ feelings over time. According to employee feedback platform AllVoices, 74 percent of employees would be more inclined to give feedback about their company and culture if the feedback channel was made truly anonymous (3).
Leaders should give serious attention to all feedback in order to measure staff satisfaction and then take steps to address any concerns that come to light.
7. Foster Workplace Friendships
Employees are less likely to play political games if they form close friendships with colleagues. What’s more, companies will benefit from lower employee turnover rates when employees get along. This is why it’s a good idea to give employees regular opportunities to connect with each other on a personal level. For example, social events and team-building activities are simple ways to help employees get to know one another in less formal environments. The aim is to provide the right set of circumstances to build closer relationships, which will ultimately help to minimise unhealthy office politics.
8. Clarify Your Rewards Policy
Bonuses, raises, and promotions can lead to conflict among workers, so it’s crucial that leaders make it clear from the outset how these rewards are decided. When everyone in a company understands what it takes to achieve a reward, it can minimise suspicion of favoritism or the way workloads are distributed. To maintain a strong work culture, everyone in your comapny should know that they have equal access to perks and incentives.
9. Lead by Example
Leaders need to set an example for others to follow when it comes to personal integrity and treating colleagues with respect. If employees continually experience unacceptable behavior from anyone in a leadership role, they’re more likely to behave poorly in order to achieve their goals at work. Often, when leaders simply make themselves more visible in the workplace and set a tone of respect, cooperation, and professionalism, employees will follow suit.
10. Provide Soft Skills Training
In many companies, people simply lack the skills needed to successfully navigate workplace politics. When there are communication breakdowns, collaboration barriers, and people struggle to get along, soft skills training can help. Soft skills are a combination of social, emotional, character, and communication skills that enable people to navigate the workplace.
In a 2020 survey by SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management), 97 percent of employers surveyed said that soft skills were either as important or more important than hard skills (4). Companies that invest in soft skills training, including leadership development, business coaching or mentoring, will reap the rewards in the long term because their employees will be better able to deal with workplace conflicts and contribute to the efficiency and productivity of the business.
The Bottom Line
Workplace politics is often just the manifestation of people trying to protect their own interests, but it can become a negative force that erodes teamwork and damages productivity. While it is unrealistic to attempt to eradicate office politics completely, every leader can take positive steps to alleviate workplace tensions and address unacceptable behaviors.
By using a combination of the strategies outlined above, conflicts at work can be kept to a minimum, resulting in a more productive, harmonious working environment that benefits both employees and the company itself.