Thursday, April 11, 2013

Eschewing Office Politics to be OK at work

I really, really hate Office Politics, or OP.

As I ranted a couple of weeks ago in “The rabid elephant in the room that needs to die. Now!” there’s nothing good about OP.

OP can infect any situation where people come together to accomplish a mission, whether it’s to earn a living, get a degree, or serve a calling. It happens in classrooms, colleges, universities, corporations, small businesses, retail stores, churches, and non-profit organizations.

While some would say OP is “good,” I’ve never encountered it.

In every situation I’ve ever worked in, when someone was talking about OP they were pointing to a situation that was unjust, bad, painful, frustrating, unfair, and just plain, you know, poopy.

In fact, most people when they think of OP think, “Oh, poop!”

Or something to that effect. You know what I mean.

But there is a different kind of work experience that’s positive.

Making the office experience OK

How should we describe a positive workplace experience without trying to contort it under the label of OP?

Let’s call it Office Kinetics, or OK for short.

If what’s happening in a workplace is good, positive, healthy, productive, respectful, dynamic, and constructive, it’s the result of Office Kinetics (OK).

OK employs trust and collaboration for the benefit of oneself and one’s colleagues as you work in concert together to achieve the organization's mission.

If what’s happening in a workplace is negative, unhealthy, wasteful, disrespectful, stalling, non-productive, and damaging, it’s the result of Office Politics (OP).

OP wields power for self-aggrandizement without regard to the negative effect on colleagues or the organization.

Is it possible to achieve an OK environment?

Yep! Let me share one. It was one of the best work experiences I’ve ever had.

Proposal pressure cooker

The last year or so that I worked at AT&T, I was a proposal manager in what was called the Sales Solutions Center (SSC). It was part of the fairly new AT&T Solutions business unit. I was a founding member of the SSC and had recruited several people into the group. We had proposal managers, proposal editors, technical writers, graphic designers, and other staff in the group.

We were the go-to group when the business unit sales team needed to produce a top-notch proposal, from the very simple to the most complex. We produced documents ranging from ten pages to several hundred pages.

Each of the proposals we developed required that we coordinate the input of dozens of individuals across several business units from offices located around the world in every timezone.

It was not unusual for someone in our group to be pulling 18-hour days two to three days a week.

Many of these proposals had the additional challenge of needing to be translated into French, Spanish, Portuguese, or some other language. The translation had to occur simultaneously with the finalization of the proposal and incorporate every last minute change that was needed.

The work was intense and the deadlines were hard and fast.

If a proposal landed on a customer’s desk one minute past the specified deadline it could be tossed aside. If this ever happened, we were determined that it wouldn’t be our fault; we met every one of our deadlines.

It wasn’t unusual for each proposal manager to be handling two or more proposals at the same time. But no matter how many proposals we had going, we always managed to get them done on time and with excellence.


We helped each other. What a concept!

Living OK at work

Every member of the SSC had what you could call a strong personality. Some of us were introverts and some were extroverts. Our temperaments were varied and our experiences were diverse. We got along great!

Tempers flared periodically, especially when pulling an all-nighter, but we were each able to work though it and patch up any ruffled emotions.

When others on our proposal teams tried to pull political stunts for whatever reasons, we backed each other up. Our management always ran interference for us.

We rooted for and helped each other to succeed. When one team’s proposal brought accolades from top executives, all of us were thrilled. When someone got a raise or a promotion, all of us were happy for them.

The focus of any competition was outward, directed toward all the others submitting proposals from competing companies. Any internal competition was just for fun.

So what were the specific characteristics that made our work environment OK?

Elements of an OK workplace

Office Kinetics (OK) is marked by progress, cooperation, friendly collaboration, mutual respect, encouragement, sharing, openness, professionalism, transparency, honesty, and the like.

OK gets the job done and does no damage.

Creating an OK situation in your workplace is a choice, it’s not something that just happens.

Here are seven essential elements for creating an OK workplace based on how we accomplished it in the SSC:
  • Understanding. Everyone possesses a different personality style. No single style is better or worse than another. But differences can bring friction. The key is to understand your own style and the styles of those you work with, as well as how each style responds to others. Our SSC group periodically took the time to go through one and two day training sessions on Myers-Briggs, DiSC, and similar tools. We all took the assessments and shared the results with each other.
  • Acceptance. We not only understood each other’s style, but we valued the differences each brought to the table. Introverts accepted coaching from the extroverts when we had to give presentations, and the extroverts understood when to let the introverts have some down time to process. Mutual respect is critical.
  • Truthfulness. With deeper understanding and mutual acceptance, being honest with one another is easier. We were able to tell each other the truth. We didn’t play games. We truly cared about one anther's best interests. We were comfortable stating differing opinions honestly, even with our management. Being transparent with one another we were able to avoid damaging conflict. Problems were resolved head-on instead of being ignored and allowed to fester.
  • Work ethic. No one was a slacker. Everyone gave 100 percent. When one of us said we would be there to help another, we were there. It wasn’t unusual for one team to ship their proposal out the door and then turn right around and pitch in to help another team. If someone called in sick, we knew they were really sick. If someone said they had to go home and rest for a few hours, no one questioned them. We knew they weren’t faking.
  • Loyalty. From time to time, since we interacted with every other business unit in the company, some “politician” would try to play one person off another for various reasons. Often it was because they didn’t think we were giving their project enough attention. Whatever the reason, it didn’t work. Why? Because we knew better. And we just didn’t play the games.
  • Forgiveness. Whenever you throw a bunch of strong personalities together into a high-pressure work environment, there will be explosions from time to time. Misunderstandings and disagreements happen, especially when you’re tired and over-worked. But we survived because when all was said and done, we forgave one another. And we were sincere.
  • Trust. At the base of every interaction within our group was a strong sense of mutual trust. We trusted each other. We trusted our management. Our management trusted us. We truly had each other’s backs and so were free to actually enjoy our work and each other.
How do these elements stack up in an environment rife with Office Politics (OP)?
  • In a political environment, conformity suppresses individual personality styles, disrespect and intolerance of difference are the norm, and understanding is considered a waste of time.
  • In a political environment differences are seen as points of leverage used to create wedges between people and groups.
  • In a political environment the truth is often anyone’s guess and information is used as a weapon. Pettiness is rampant.
  • In a political environment the work ethic is always skewed with a few doing a lot and many doing little. Rewards are based on favoritism instead of effort or results.
  • In a political environment gossip, blame, rumors, and false accusations always run rampant and fuel discord, damaging even the innocent.
  • In a political environment, if there is forgiveness it’s always fake; nothing that can be used against you is ever forgiven or forgotten.
  • In a political environment, trust is non-existent, second-guessing is rampant, and motives are always suspect; one must always watch his/her back.

Death to OP! Let’s all be OK!

As I mentioned in my previous anti-OP post, poor Jack Bauer in the TV series 24 was constantly battling bad guys outside as well as inside his “office.” It was incredibly draining for him and it put the country at risk!

However, there were moments when everyone was on the same page, working together to defeat the enemy. In these moments, Jack and everyone else were far more effective and OK.

While the intrigue and machinations of politics may make for great TV, it sucks the life out of organizations.

Driving Office Politics (OP) out of your workplace while embracing Office Kinetics (OK) will improve morale, productivity, and the well-being of everyone.

 What additional positives can you think of that contribute to OK? What about negatives that mark an environment rife with OP? Feel free to share your experiences with OP and OK in the comments section.

Oh, and there are other dangers lurking in the office. It's a wonder we ever get out alive!

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