Please forgive me, Chuck Palahniuk, but I’m going to talk about fight club. Well. Not really. Well. Sorta.
I’m going to talk about office politics. I think it’s a fair statement that, similarly, the first “rule” of office politics is: No one talks about office politics. At least, not openly.
And why is that? Because work truly IS a daily fight club? Because it’s cruel in the lean, mean world of cubicles, and talking could get you cut? Because of the necessary two-faced-ness involved in playing the “politics game” with your co-workers and managers, your best bet is to trust no one? Because we don’t want to acknowledge the fact that we have to watch our own backs like we are still in high school? Because if you speak up about it, it makes you seem petty, or like a whiner, as if you can’t “take the heat,” or possibly like a liar who is playing a different office politics card as part of the game?
Not many people I know want to spend most days working in a “fight club” environment, nor do they want to feel like a pawn in some game. So why don’t we make a concerted effort to talk about it and make it better?
“Is able to work as part of a team” is a common requirement of most jobs. Rarely does a person come to his/her desk, work, and go home, without interactions that involve several other people. So, if you (and, presumably, each of your co-workers) are a willing and capable teammate, why is working on a team so hard?
Remember all those group projects in middle school, high school, and even college that made you chafe at “having” to work with these people? Unfortunately, the purpose of those projects was to try to get you to learn about teamwork. Sometimes it works beautifully, but other times…one person does the work of several, several people do the same thing, or there is some conflict between teammates about process, or heaven forbid, the point of the assignment itself. I know I’ve been in few a “group projects” that failed to impress.
Surely, you’ve considered ignoring office politics, but most advisors indicate this is not the way to approach the problem. Try to follow the three Cs of conquering office politics to get out of the fight club.
Culture Change. This one’s for the managers. A culture in the company must be set that eliminates the need to compete against each other for accolades or, vice versa, to avoid becoming a scapegoat when things take a downturn. Ostensibly, you want teams to work together harmoniously, right? Happy workers are productive workers. If your workers are constantly trying to undercut each other or you can’t get that one brown-noser out of your office, how much is actually getting accomplished in your workplace. If you create a culture fosters community and cooperation, the ugliest of the office politics should be diminished. You aren’t going to be able to eliminate it completely, but tamping down the vitriol should make the workplace a more pleasant place to spend 40+ hours a week.
Common Ground. Everyone wants to succeed, right? Everyone is working toward the same end goal in most projects: successful launch of some product, improve an existing system, expanding contract coverage from regional to national, help a group of people, solve a problem…it all depends upon each individual team member doing the job they were hired to do. Office politics is a detractor from the pursuit of success, often beginning with blame when something goes amiss. Since all the team members share the common ground of wanting to succeed, instead of being quick to blame and point fingers, an approach that pairs personal accountability with problem solving, can often prevent projects from going sideways. The purpose of daily Scrum meetings is to keep teams communicating on a regular basis. Regular communication prevents small problems from festering into larger problems. When larger problems are avoided, it is less likely that team members will become aggressive or desperate in their office relationships.
Cooperation. Managers must foster a sense of cooperation, and team members must cooperate. Back to that high school group project analogy—hopefully you learned that cooperation gleans the most success. When there is a reluctance to cooperate, it is the manager’s job to make it clear that cooperation is an expectation of the job. Also, having clearly-defined roles and responsibilities can deter some of the common approaches to those who create drama in the office hierarchy. If each person in the project knows what s/he is responsible for, there is little room for jockeying for position by stepping on each other’s toes, nor is there the ability to hide in the crowd just letting someone else do everything. In that same vein, the people who “go ahead” and do someone else’s work in an effort to make him/herself look better—this cannot be tolerated. Each person must pull his/her own weight, stay in his/her own lane, while also having teammates who can assist when needed. Because…cooperation, people. We learned this in Kindergarten. It is not that hard.
Hopefully, with stating the approach to change the culture, setting up the workplace as a common ground for all workers, and enacting cooperation as a team practice, the bad behavior that spawns unbearable office politics can be minimized. And MAYBE, you can even thrive.