Office Politics Never Die!
By Chelse Benham
"Office politics is the only game you automatically lose by not playing." Susan
Osborn, an office-politics columnist for High Technology Careers Magazine.
A ground breaking study conducted by Carol Watson and Richard Hoffman in
1996 called, " Managers as Negotiators" in Leadership Quarterly 7 (1), showed
that 42 percent of a manager's time was spent on reaching agreement with
others when conflicts occur between employees. This type of interaction is the
basis of much unpleasant politicking; conflict between employees. Politics isn’t
bad in all its forms. In general, politics is the use of intrigue or strategy in
obtaining any position of power or control. – Random House College Dictionary
However, adverse or negative office affairs take a toll on employee morale and
can ultimately lead to higher staff turnover. They also consume a significant
amount of time. In a more recent study, commissioned by The Creative Group
Web site in its article called, “Putting Out Fires” released on April 15, 2001, it
found that executives estimated that they spent a total of nine weeks a year
resolving personality conflicts!
“There are two ways information flows through a company; formal and informal.
How a company handles this sharing of information is crucial to the workplace.
The formal channels are through chain-of-command, memorandums, office forms
and formal discussions such as meetings,” said Dr. Rafael Balderrama, lecturer
of sociology in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at The University of
Texas-Pan American. “Then there is an informal sharing of information. It is
more difficult to make sense of because it is more complicated. A lot of informal
information is passed along through the ‘grapevine’ known as gossip or network.
It is sensitive to abuse in the sense that someone in possession of information
may use it for personal gain or to take revenge on someone else. This is a form
of negative politicking.”
Net Future Institute (NFI) Research found at www.netfutureinstitute.com, a
United States based research firm that identifies and analyzes trends and
attitudes in business and organizational management, found three reasons why
most negative office politics occur. The research found most office politics turn
ugly because of personality conflicts, gossip and a company’s short-term vision
for its future.
“Each company has its own culture with its own means of sharing information.
There are many ways information can be used. In cooperative settings there is
an inter-organizational sharing of information. This is part of the problem solving
process,” Balderrama said. “But, managers should be aware of the informal
communications taking place. They need to know if it is being abused and
monitor the negative politicking taking place. They need to act quickly to address
Herman Consulting, a human development firm in San Francisco, California, has
identified the cost of conflict in organizational management. It lists seven costs to
companies on www.hermanconsulting.com They are:
Time Spent by Managers Attempting to Address Conflict – Nearly 45 percent of
managerial salaries are being diverted for managing conflict.
Decreased Decision Quality (Collective Productivity) – Collective productivity in
the form of decisional quality is also impaired during conflict. Decisions made in
conflict-laden situations are typically inferior to decisions made in contexts of
cooperation. The reasons are two-fold. First, good decision-making requires
sufficient and dependable information. But under conditions of conflict,
information is often withheld or distorted. Second, decisions made jointly by
people or teams in conflict are likely to be contaminated by the power struggles
Employee Turnover – Conflict is one of the primary reasons employees leave
organizations. Employee turnover poses an onerous cost to organizations. This
is because of such constituent costs as (1) the lost productivity of departing
employees; (2) the lost productivity of vacant positions pending the hiring of
replacements; (3) the costs of recruiting and selecting replacements; and (4) the
costs of training replacements.
Decreased Individual Productivity Due to Distraction – Conflict inflicts a further
productivity loss by being so emotionally charged and therefore distracting.
Conflict tends to pose threats to both self-worth and relationships with colleagues
– both of which are key preoccupations for most employees. The resultant high
level of distraction diverts employee attention from their tasks at hand.
Reduced Employee Motivation – Conflict decreases employee motivation which,
in turn, reduces productivity even further. If the conflict is with one’s boss, the
reduced motivation may take the form of passive resistance to direction. The
boss will then notice that "nothing seems to get done."
Absenteeism – Absenteeism results from job stress. And one of the greatest job
stressors is conflict. The employee’s absence might be due to a conscious
decision to retreat from the stress (conflict) or it might be due to actual illness.
Illness itself is highly correlated with stress and, thus, with conflict. Accordingly,
reducing conflict will reduce stress, illness and overall absenteeism.
Increased Health Costs – As just noted, illness correlates with stress and
therefore with conflict. Increased illness results in higher health insurance claim
rates and thus higher company insurance premiums. These increased costs are
If the costs are so high how can a manager handle the conflict between
employees and thus reduce the consequences? In its article, “Reduce Office
Politics,” Webgrrls International Web site provides managers with straightforward
strategies for handling office affairs. They are:
Keep the door open. Political tensions are often fueled by insecurity. Avoid high-
profile, closed-door meetings when possible. They can give rise to unhealthy
speculation. Instead, try to keep your employees apprised of the latest
happenings in your department and at your firm.
Emphasize integrity. Just one dishonest employee can generate significant office
tension. Hire with an eye toward integrity. Ask prospective employees' references
about their applicants' ethics and honesty, and emphasize the strong value you
place on these traits with your staff at every opportunity.
Eliminate office rivalry. A certain amount of healthy competition can be a strong
motivator, but too much competition can be divisive. Carefully consider your work
environment. Does the level of competition discourage your employees from
collaborating for the greater good of the company? Do workers feel they are
judged not by their individual merits but by how they compare with the person
sitting next to them? These are warning signs that competition is becoming
Reward team results. Publicly recognize groups as well as individuals to motivate
and inspire. Praising the entire team reinforces the message that collaboration is
essential to success.
Avoid creating the "Lone Superstar." The strongest individual achievers should
also be able to work well with others. Make sure the rules of business etiquette
apply to all employees equally, regardless of status. "It's not my job" attitudes lie
at the root of many politically charged situations.
Watch for burnout. An office filled with employees who are overworked or
overburdened is ripe for conflict. Stress tends to make people less patient, less
receptive and less compromising. Keep your employees' workloads at
reasonable levels, even if that means bringing in outside help, and try to ensure
that assignments are evenly distributed. Often, the most competent employees
will be the first to burnout, since they tend to be given more than their fair share
of the work.
Use humor to your advantage. A little humor on the job can ease stress and
promote camaraderie. Just make sure jokes aren't offensive or at the expense of
Take active steps to gauge morale. Check in with employees regularly and offer
your help in solving problems. Be sure workers feel comfortable approaching
management with their concerns. Clear, two-way communication can help
identify and diffuse potentially serious conflicts.
As on of the nation's experts on both career and education issues, Dr. Marty
Nemko, author of “Cool Careers for Dummies,” provides valuable information for
handling office politics. In his article, “Winning at Office Politics...Without Selling
Your Soul” found at www.martynemko.com he offers effective strategies for
employees involved in negative politics. They are:
Periodically ask respected higher-ups for counsel. That encourages them to think
of you as a protégé. In turn, they're more likely to come to your defense when
you need it.
Do unrandom acts of kindness. For example, stay late one night to help a co-
worker on a deadline. Or send a handwritten thank-you note to the person who
gave you assistance.
Do visible important tasks. If such tasks aren't in your job description, ask if you
can take one on. Be sure you are credited for the work.
If you are being undermined, Nemko has outlined some significant strategies for
handling the saboteur and playing the game of positive politics. His suggestions
1. Get feedback from a supporter. Say something like, "I'm concerned that Mary
is annoyed with me. Have you noticed that? Anything you think I should do?"
2. Respond with strength. If your saboteur tries to put you down, especially in
front of others, don't wimp out; make a strong response, perhaps using humor.
3. Privately confront the backstabber. For example, "I've noticed that you seem
annoyed with me? Is there anything I'm doing wrong?" If you get useful feedback,
fine. Thank her and offer to work on improving. If, however, you sense that her
reason for annoyance is unjustified, you need to be strong. For example, you
might say, "Mary, you're withholding key information from me. Things have to
change starting now or I'll have to go to the boss."
4. Inoculate yourself. Tell others that you're concerned that (insert perpetrator's
name), for selfish gain, is unfairly trying to denigrate you. Point to specific
evidence of unfairness or you may be perceived as the backstabber.
“Politics isn't about winning at all costs. It's about maintaining relationships and
getting results at the same time.” – John Eldred, business professor at Kingston