Friday, March 22, 2013

The rabid elephant in the room that needs to die. Now!

My wife and I, both Jack Bauer fans, recently started revisiting the TV series 24. As with most shows or movies that you give a second look, I’m seeing things I didn’t notice before.

One big revelation this time around is that Jack’s most threatening enemy to his success was something that every office in America – yea, verily, around the world! – is infiltrated by.

While Jack was laying his life on the line out in the field engaging in fierce gun battles with terrorists and other bad guys, the people who were supposed to have his back were back in the office busily engaging in a kind of terrorism of their own: Office politics.

Seriously, think about it.

Had there been no office politicking going on, odds are that Jack would not have needed 24 hours to wrap up each season’s save-the-world plot line. He could have had a few bathroom breaks, a relaxing meal, and a nice night’s sleep.

But no!

He had to take the time to deal with people who were intent on hindering his efforts, trying to finagle their way into his job, demanding raises, nibbying into his personal life, jockeying to one-up one another, and on and on it went.

It’s pathetic!

And it’s the sad, sad reality of our corporate, higher ed, non-profit, retail, religious, factory, and organizational work world.

It is the rabid elephant lurking in every meeting room, office, and cubicle that desperately needs to be put down and shown no mercy.

Harmful to children and other life forms

I hate politics.

Not the stuff that goes on in D.C., although it’s often sickening.

Rather, I’m referring to politics that take place where politics don’t belong: in offices, in churches, in all kinds of organizations where people are supposed to be cooperating, collaborating, serving, and innovating.

It’s usually labeled office politics or workplace politics. In this post, I’ll refer to it as OP.

Regardless of how you label it, it’s all about misdirection and the abuse of power.

Practitioners of OP (office politics) step on everyone, lie about co-workers, inflate their own value, take advantage of others, deceive, snipe, lay traps, withhold essential information, and generally create chaos.

Similar to the “fog of war” they seek to create a “fog at work” that disguises their own incompetence while painting others with a blackwash of fake inadequacy.

OP siphons the energies of a workforce away from the mission of the organization.

It’s costly and crippling. There is no positive value in office politics.

Those who actively practice OP are little more than Machiavellian misanthropes, office assassins, and productivity terrorists.

What OP isn’t

Oddly, there are some who laud OP as something useful, necessary, and constructive. These people are either woefully misguided naïfs or just plain ignorant of what OP is and isn’t.

Let’s clarify some things that are not OP tactics, but more the norm for proper etiquette in any workplace:

  • Networking is not OP. Networking is simply learning about others, what they do, their skills, and building a list of contacts. For example, let’s say you have a project in need of a graphic designer; you check your Rolodex and either have a name at hand or know someone who can refer you. Your network is like your own personal “Angie’s List.”
  • Getting to know those you work with is not OP. Camaraderie in the workplace is natural and healthy. You want to understand and be respectful of the personality styles, skills, wisdom, experience, and talents of those you work with. And you want to be known and respected equally. Getting to know workmates is about friendship, trust, respect, and civility. It has nothing to do with discovering how to use people for your own malicious purposes or building secret alliances.
  • Managing the work environment is not OP. Understanding boundaries, using standard operating procedures, recognizing protocols, and engaging in consistent practices is a boon to productivity. Sometimes these need to be challenged, but the goal is to benefit everyone, both inside and outside the organization.
  • Being ethical on the job is not OP. Choosing to always do the right thing, the right way, at the right time, for the right reasons is never the wrong thing to do. Turning a blind eye toward unethical behavior in order to gain points with or power over someone creates a cancer of dishonesty that can hurt everyone.
  • Doing your job competently is not OP. You were hired to provide a service in return for an income. When you go to work you should be going to work. And everything you do should be done to the best of your ability. This is a no-brainer.
  • Behaving cordially and being courteous on the job is not OP. Civility is an expectation in the workplace. Being civil includes not engaging in rude, arrogant, insulting, belittling, racist, sexist, ageist, or any other inappropriate behavior.
It’s important to discern the differences between abusive OP behaviors and positive workplace behaviors that are constructive. If it supports the mission of the business and benefits all, it’s usually a good thing. If it’s all about one person or a small group, that’s a red flag.

Common OP tactics

Why does OP exist? It’s a tangled, suffocating snare that foments from the compost of incompetence, narcissism, jealousy, laziness, vanity, fear, anger, arrogance, and the like.

It’s nasty stuff taking a variety of forms:
  • OP is used to cover incompetence.
A local columnist characterized one situation like this: “Safety director Flask has proved no more effective in his role. Constant scandal in the fire department, sloth and incompetence in the police department and a sorely stressed EMS department that remains without an identity have marked his tenure. How he has survived is beyond me, but it speaks to a certain political adroitness.”

Note that last sentence and the final two words. We all know someone who should not be in the position they hold yet cling to it, not because of any real job competence, but solely because of “political adroitness.”

OP involves creating a smokescreen to cloud incompetence so a person can maneuver around those who are actually good at real work. These incompetents will also steal the ideas of others and claim them as their own.

When I went to work for a company in Indianapolis, I was warned by coworkers about an HR director who was described as a snake. Because of my position, I’d need to work with him on a regular basis.

Naively I took the warnings with a grain of salt and was determined to hold him “innocent until proven guilty.”

We were handed an important project for the CEO. As it turned out, I ended up doing most of the development. I slowly figured out it was because the HR director was clueless as to how to proceed. However, when we were in a meeting with senior executives to discuss our process and progress, he quickly took credit for everything!

I was stunned and speechless. When I later tried to confront him, which is no easy task for an introvert, he slithered right through my objections with slippery, snake-ish charm. I avoided being connected with him as much as possible after that.
  • OP is used to control instead of manage.
Many who rise to management positions do so by being tactful bullies. They push people out of their way in a most charming manner. It’s very confusing to the pushed. But it’s merely a matter of manipulation.

“Betty” (not her real name) was a senior manager who seemed to enjoy putting employees through the wringer just for the fun of it.

About every six months or so, Betty zeroed in on an employee and always managed to find something she viewed as amiss with their work, even if she had to make it up. Often, it wasn’t clear to the employee what the issue was and so correcting the “wrong” behavior was almost impossible, especially when it wasn’t real. But the fact that their job was on the line was always very real.

Betty never confronted these employees directly, but worked through the managers reporting to her. This meant both the manager involved and the employee were squeezed.

Sadly, Betty wielded a fair amount of power and no one stood up to her, even though everyone (except those above her) knew what she was doing and that it was simply cruel. They knew opposing her would make them a target.

Why was Betty cruel? From all appearances it seemed she enjoyed being able to throw her weight around and was insecure as a manager. This left her with a warped sense of how to manage; all she knew was manipulation and control.

As a result, over the years, several very competent, productive employees left the company. Clearly, this impacted the company’s bottom-line as well.
These are only two examples. I’m sure you can think of several on your own (Maybe share them in the comments section below?).

The bottom line is that OP does horrible damage to people and organizations.

Kill it before it spreads

I’ve watched OP played by senior executives, investors, and others at the top of the heap with their actions actually costing them and their organizations hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some even blatantly acknowledged OP was a game and thought it was fun to create chaos with total disregard to the pain they created in their own organizations.

These same individuals then forced the slashing of budgets and downsized people out of the organization to cover the losses they caused. Yet, they never acknowledged they were the real sources of the problems, and complained vociferously about everyone else’s perceived failings.

Talk about a morale killer!

Intentionally infecting organizations with OP or simply ignoring what’s festering is grossly irresponsible.

OP brings down morale, encourages unethical behavior, reduces productivity, destabilizes the work environment, saps the energies of employees, opens the organization to risk, and significantly cuts into the bottom line.

Worse, OP deflects your organization away from its purpose and away from serving your customers or constituency.

OP undercuts your mission and siphons off passion.

How can you stifle OP? Here are a few suggestions:
  • View people as people. Using euphemisms like “human resources” to refer to the people who make up your organization can be dehumanizing. It becomes easy to think of people in terms of dollars, objects, things to be used. This is dangerous and leads to all manner of abuse. Never lose sight of the humanity of your workforce. They are flesh and blood, living and breathing people with their own thoughts and emotions. Respect them and value them above all else.
  • Nip contention in the bud. Any time you encounter sniping, gossip, excessive conflict, and other negative behavior, get to the bottom of the issue and bring people together as quickly as possible. If necessary, bring in trainers to teach your organization how to handle conflict in a healthy, positive manner.
  • Direct competition outward. Be careful of creating competition between individuals or departments. Internal competition can lead to divisiveness and an “us” versus “them” culture. Use competition to unify the organization to compete against the marketplace or to overcome a problem that needs solving.
  • Practice truly transparent communication. Don’t spin things! Speak the truth without embellishment. Employees are not children that need protecting; they are adult professionals who deserve respecting. Always be honest with others and insist on honesty from them. Whether bad news or good, always tell it straight.
  • Be fair top to bottom. I’ve never really bought into the idea that senior people deserve ridiculously more extravagant perks than lower-ranking people. Sure, anyone taking on more responsibility should earn more money and maybe get a few extra perks. But, beyond that, be careful to avoid establishing a corporate caste system that only engenders resentment and jealousy.
  • Don’t play games with people’s lives. Keep your promises. Treat people with respect. Lead by example. Do all you say you’re going to do when you say you’re going to do it. Live by the Golden Rule.

You've got to work to avoid being seduced by the lie that office politics is harmless or even a reasonable element of any organization. It isn’t.

As Jack Bauer would say, kill it before it spreads. Now!

Additional Resources:

Read more in this post:  Eschewing Office Politics to be OK at work

Here are two articles from the same publication that present opposing views on OP (office politics). Frankly, I believe Samuel Bacharach’s pro article isn’t actually addressing true “office politics.” Eric V. Holtzclaw, however, offers additional good tips on the con side. You can judge for yourself:
Here’s an example of one executive working to reduce office politics:
Here’s another take on getting OP out of the office. Note the struggle to define “good” and “bad” OP. I think we need to develop a different term for office politics; something like “workplace backstabbing” perhaps?

Do you have links to good articles you’d like to share? What kinds of experiences have you endured with office politics? Any additional advice for combating it? If you’re an introvert, do you believe dealing with office politics more stressful?

This video is a funny metaphor that graphically portrays the real violence of office politics. Don’t be fooled by the humor.

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