Program Innovators
  • Prevail over office politics

    When experienced leaders are asked to list things that they like the least about their position of authority, “office politics” will be high on the list of annoyances.   Similarly, when rank and file workers are asked to name several things that they dislike about their work environment, “office politics” makes their list too!  Disruptive sub-agendas in the workplace cause trepidation among leaders and create conflict among workers, yet politics is accepted as a natural component of the environment.

    Webster and Wikipedia both agree that office politics involves the use of power and authority to gain and keep an advantage over co-workers or business competitors.  The concept is simple; those with P&A constantly use politics to expand and solidify their position.  Strong, designated bosses can use authoritarian power that goes with the position to enforce compliance however, savvy leaders know that using a touch of politics will create a team that wants to follow rather than a team that must follow.

    In contrast, where strong leadership is absent, quasi leaders emerge to shape the opinions of co-workers and undermine the agenda of the designated leader.  Opinion leaders claim power by controlling the emotions of their peers, often by starting rumors that generate fear and anxiety.  In dysfunctional workgroups that are void of effective leadership, the quasi-leaders often have more power than the person with the title.   Workers who want to be loyal to the organization are stressed by the conflict of choosing between the designated leader and the opinion leader.  When left unchecked, opinion leaders gain power and can ruin both morale and productivity.

    “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors” ~Plato

    Politics in the workplace may arise from many different sources.  Harvard Business Review contributor Michael Jarrett identifies several dynamic forces that fuel office politics, including the following.

    • Grassroots politics – generated by the buzz that exists just below the radar screen of the designated leader or organizational administration. Opinion leaders spin and spread enough fear to undermine just about any initiative put forth by leaders.  Because gossip and rumor are the vehicles for spreading discord, there is seldom accountability for instigators.
    • Authority politics – linked to the official title or role of the individual. The designated leader or a person appointed to head a project may use her position to coerce others into obedience.
    • Policy politics – wielded by individuals who memorize the rule book and quickly report anyone whose behavior is suspect. Rather than addressing an issue with the offending person, the rule mongers quickly file a complaint with HR or any authority who will listen and act.
    • Status quo politics – emerging from established norms, assumptions and unspoken routines. “We have always done it that way,” rules the day and those in the cocoon of comfort generated by routine will fight any disruption to workplace habits.

    Stop the shaking at your knees and lead with confidence.  As the leader, you have an opportunity to view workplace politics as a dynamic source of energy that can be tapped and directed to produce impressive results.  Put the harness on runaway politics and channel team energy into more productive activities by adopting and practicing the following leadership behaviors.

    Learn the office culture.  Be confident of your ability and agenda while discovering who the opinion leaders in your group are.  Identify your sources of support and use positive politics to ensure that they are allies.  Assess the status quo of your workplace and consider that many elements of the daily routine serve a positive purpose and enhance the workflow.  Before implementing change, evaluate the level of support for the new policy, and be politically aware by fully informing the team of the need for change well in advance of implementation.   “Knee jerk” policy implementation fuels the furnace of political rivals and ensures sabotage.

    Don’t burn bridges.  Divide and conquer is an established military strategy and those who would steal your political power are energized whenever you have a rift with another person.  Avoid emotional responses that poison personal relationships and consider that today’s foe may be tomorrow’s ally.  Don’t turn a blind eye to bad behavior, instead, address every issue in a mature manner that addresses the problem while maintaining a positive relationship with the individual.

    Never allow gossip.  The undercurrent of gossip that is ubiquitous in many workplaces only serves to empower opinion leaders and may be used to sabotage you.  Do not participate in gossip and cut it off immediately by dispelling rumors.   As a leader charged with improving the morale of a group, I gained political respect by publishing a weekly update which included the “rumor mill”.  In that space I directly addressed any current rumors by transparently informing the group of the truth.  In short order, rather than gossip, people came to me unswervingly to clarify rumors.

    There are no unimportant people.  Display charismatic politics by connecting with everyone on the team on a personal level including, and especially, the opinion leaders.  Be professional and remain on alert that they will try to control you.  Take responsibility for your relationships and give the loyal opinion leaders on your team additional responsibility and then recognize/reward them when they are productive.

    Be strategic.  What is your long-term goal for the team and what are the steps that must be taken to get there?  Start with small projects and put others in a logical sequence so that you can build momentum as you go.  Again, give appropriate recognition to your all of your high achievers whenever possible.

    Be collaborative.  The positive use of politics augments effective teamwork, unites individuals, enhances morale and eliminates power struggles that fuel office politics.  Creating interdependence and a sense of shared responsibility puts you clearly in control as the leader and strips power from those who would take yours.

    Think of politics as a use of power.  The politics of the 60s united a nation and landed a man on the moon whereas the politics of the 70s divided a nation and mandated the retreat from Viet Nam.  Workplace politics are less sensational but equally control the mood and productivity of a team.   Capitalize on the collective strength of your team, take charge, and use the political capital that comes with your position to build a cohesive and productive workplace.

    Tom S. Davis, DNAP, CRNA, MAE, is the former Chief of the Division of Nurse Anesthesia at The Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, and former Chief CRNA at (Baylor) Scott and White, Main OR in Temple, TX. Col. Davis, USAF (Ret.), is well-known throughout the Nurse Anesthesia community for his leadership in clinical anesthesia, including developing the first distance education model while on the graduate faculty at Kansas University Medical Center.   Recognized for his expertise in team-building across department lines, Tom is a sought-after speaker, educator, author, and leadership trainer. Follow @procrnatom on Twitter.