Does Your Company Culture is Infected With Office Politics?

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Office politics aren’t pretty. You can recognize the symptoms. Leaders don’t trust each other, departments compete against one another, and people suffer from a toxic working environment.

So what can you do when your organization or department is diagnosed with a nasty case of office politics? How can you survive when your company culture resembles jungle warfare? What will it take to start focusing on external competitors, rather than waging internal battles?

I’m not a management consultant, or an expert in organizational development. I’m a tax accountant by trade. My views come from almost four decades of experience as a leader – and now Global CEO – at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited. And from the perspectives I’ve gained working with Deloitte member firm clients around the world to solve their most pressing business issues.

Everyone’s a leader, whether you have the official job title or not. And there are practical steps you can take to lead your people out of the political jungle…

1. Be politically savvy, but not political.

If you do nothing else, do this. Be aware of the dynamics driving office politics, but avoid joining in with the games yourself. Rise above it. Stay true to your values and hold yourself to the highest ethical standards.

2. Build trust by admitting your vulnerabilities.

In his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni suggests that dysfunctional teams have an absence of trust, often stemming from an unwillingness to be vulnerable. Based on my own experience, I couldn’t agree more. Teams that lack trust don’t share expertise, or honest feedback. They don’t learn from their mistakes. They hold grudges. And performance suffers. As a leader, you can break the cycle by demonstrating genuine vulnerability first. Create a team environment where it’s OK to talk about mistakes and weaknesses.

3. Bring conflict above ground.

Back-channel whispers and passive aggressive tensions are hallmarks of a political office. Lencioni writes that teams that avoid open debate about ideas and solutions, inevitably descend into much more personal hostilities. I’ve seen this happen in even the most high-performing organizations. Once again, this comes back to your values: such as respect and openness. By fostering an atmosphere within your team which embraces appropriate conflict, you can minimize negative behavior. Perhaps more importantly, teams that engage in open debate are more likely to address critical issues, find solutions to problems, and develop innovative ideas.

4. Change your perspective about what it means to win.

Some degree of internal competition is productive, but can easily go too far. When there are unhealthy levels of internal competition, people don’t share information, or focus enough on enhancing the company’s overall performance. They waste time one-upping each other, rather than focusing their attention on the real competitors in their marketplace. As a leader, try to find the right balance between personal and team performance. Align personal performance objectives with those of the organization. Help your people better understand your organization’s strategy, and how they personally contribute to this.

5. Realize that life’s too short to work for an organization that doesn’t share your values.

The hours we spend at work add up to a very significant chunk of our lives. I’m often invited to speak to new graduates, and without fail, I always tell them: find an organization that shares your values, because that’s where you’ll be most successful. It’s a good reminder, even for those of us many years past graduation! You can influence a great deal, simply by being a role model for others. But if the politics in your organization suggest its values are irreconcilable with your own, it’s time to start looking for one that’s a better fit.

I hope you find my insights helpful. I’m very interested to hear your advice for overcoming office politics and internal competition. Please share your thoughts in the comments section.


Barry Salzberg is the Global CEO of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited.

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