ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - October 2001


Issue Highlight — A Day in the Life of a Fool
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 In This Issue...
The Big Bang Theory of Teambuilding and Leadership or Listen Up!
Just a Little Suggestion
Highly Satisfied Customers
Gotcha! Office Politics at Work

Peter Block Column
Views for a Change
Brief Cases

Return to NFC Index

Gotcha! Office Politics at Work
The High Price of Destructive Office Politics
and How to Deal With It

The game of office politics is a common problem in organizations today. It’s a problem that hurts employee morale, hinders productivity and feeds destructive behaviors. In the following article, Lawrence Serven, author of “The End of Office Politics as Usual: A Complete Strategy for Creating a More Productive and Profitable Organization,” suggests tips for addressing office politics and changing the rules of the game. His top 10 ideas are simple and, when quickly implemented, produce progress. If politics is hurting your workplace, this is the place to start.

“I wake up every morning and look for a way to mess up Jim’s work. Maybe it is just not correcting a typo in a memo or perhaps losing a phone message; I only do little things that might slip beneath the radar. All with the goal of making him look bad, so I can get promoted,” unabashedly says Tom.

  Sound familiar? Hopefully not, but the sad truth is that many companies face these and other destructive behaviors as a result of office politics. Ask most people what is the one thing they would change about their work environment and the vast majority respond with “office politics.” It is not news that all organizations operate in a political milieu, but companies large and small are now beginning to address the issues of office politics head on.

  Office politics is not just dealing with conflict resolution. And we will never eliminate the political nature of our organizations. But office politics is a separate entity from those generally positive political behaviors that enhance organizational performance. The key question to address is: Does this political behavior undermine organizational performance and destroy shareholder value?

  “Anything that holds an organization from operating at its peak performance should be seriously addressed. While most people would agree with this statement, there is one area that can dramatically affect performance that has remained largely off limits—office politics,” says Lawrence Serven, principal, The Buttonwood Group, Stamford, Conn. “Office politics can act like cholesterol, slowing down the decision-making process, hardening the arteries of effective teamwork and ultimately undermining the health of the organization.”

  Serven realizes however that you cannot change office politics. What you have to do is change the rules of the game. “Most people realize that the official binder one receives from human resources when they join a company is most likely less than half the picture,” sighs Serven. “What people really want to know is how do I get ahead here? What do I need to do to get promoted, a better raise, and more power…? Through observation, employees learn the “Insiders Rulebook,” the real dos and don’ts of a company. Many times employees begin to realize that people get ahead in the organization by taking credit for others’ work or making others look bad.”

The End of Office Politics
After conducting focus groups at 24 companies across the nation in a variety of industries, Serven has developed a blueprint to rewrite the “Insiders Rulebook” and will be the focus of his soon to be published “The End of Office Politics as Usual: A Complete Strategy for Creating a More Productive and Profitable Organization.”

  The first step, according to Serven, is to create a new sense of collective purpose. Basically answering the questions why are we all here and what are we trying to do? Serven has successfully used a collage simulation. “We break everyone in the larger group into smaller groups and give them magazines.
We then ask them to create a collage on a big poster board that answers the questions of purpose. We purposely limit the collage making to 30 minutes since we do not want anyone to overthink his or her response. Then each group shares with the others their collage and has an opportunity to react to the vision, says Serven. Through these and other techniques organizations can build a new and collective sense of purpose.

  Once an organization has a clear sense of purpose, the challenge is to create new leaders. Serven suggests accomplishing this by identifying the types of behaviors you want in your managers and leaders. “Behavior that always comes up are trust and integrity. The difficulty then is in measuring people on these behaviors. I have found that using 360 degree evaluations and self-reference to be fairly effective. This allows managers to look at gaps in perception and behavior.” While much of the current thinking around measurement is that it does not enhance performance, Serven disagrees. “This is really a case of progress not perfection and measurement can improve performance if it is tied to rewards. If there are no rewards associated with the measure, there are not likely to be improvements.”

Creating a New Roadmap
Once behaviors have been identified by the organization, a new roadmap needs to be created. What are the actual day-to-day processes that run company and how do those related to the planning process? “Unless your strategic and planning processes become melded with the fundamental day-to-day processes, nothing will change. The core question is: How are we going to be different on Monday morning?” Serven believes by answering the three initial questions of purpose, role and key measures at the top of the organization first helps accomplish the task of integrating planning and fundamental processes. “In essence the process cascades down throughout the organization and an increasingly lower level of tactical detail until every manager and employee understands their role in the grander plan.”

  Finally, organizations need to create new rewards. This means rewriting the compensation and benefits policies to link them to the new planning process and new behaviors identified by the organization. “I like to have every employee have a goal sheet that lists their three or four goals for the next year based on the roadmap the organization has created and right next to the goals are the rewards for accomplishing the goals.”

  As a result of these four steps, organizations have in essence rewritten the “Insiders Rulebook.”

Take these “Top 10” ideas for what they are. Simple, relatively quickly implemented ideas that can produce some progress. It's hardly an exhaustive list, but it should give you something to think about, and it may even generate some ideas of your own. But bear in mind that these innovative ideas can yield even greater benefits if the rest of the components of a friction-free workplace have been put in place.

Innovative Idea #1: Have non-financial people present the monthly performance results to the organization.
  So what can we do about it? Change the rules, give people incentive to communicate and understand the story. Specifically, have non-financial employees present the company’s results to the organization. If it's a large company, do this within each division or business unit. This means that engineers, marketing and human resource professionals, you name it, will each take a turn at presenting the results.

Innovative Idea #2: Teach everyone how the business works.
  There are many different ways in which a company’s business model could be communicated to the organization. What's important is that people learn to understand and appreciate what everyone else is doing to contribute to the success of the organization. That’s a great first step in tearing down walls and building a collective sense of team.

Innovative Ideas #3, #4, #5: Open the books, utilizing weekly huddles and a monthly business exchange.
  Opening up the books simply means that everyone knows how the organization is doing. Many companies think this means just distributing the financial results with a little commentary, but it needs to go well beyond that if it is to be instrumental in helping unite the organization as a single team. The “Weekly Huddle” is a departmental meeting to discuss how the department is doing against its goals. The purpose of the “Monthly Business Exchange” is to report on the company's progress. Each functional leader provides the organization with highlights of progress made in their area during the month.

Innovative Idea #6: Design a formal conflict resolution process.
  In a similar fashion to the judicial system in the United States, conflicts are discussed in a formal process (described below). If there is failure to reach agreement, it is brought to the next level up. If need be, it can go right up the CEO (although this should be a fairly rare occurrence as it would not reflect favorably on the senior managers who could not resolve their own disputes).

Innovative Idea #7: Use the “handy cam” image.
  Imagine a handy cam recording your decisions, to terminate an employee or promote one, to join forces with another product group to come up with a synergistic campaign—or not. You get the picture. Doing the right thing is always a little easier knowing that the rationale for making your decision will be public.

Innovative Idea #8: The Annual Awards Show.
  I have seen other companies that simply combined the Annual Awards with their holiday party or company picnic, and others still that held not annual but quarterly awards in the company cafeteria. Whatever your budget and what you determine is right for your organization, the intent should be to reward the type of behavior you want others in the organization to emulate.

Innovative Idea #9: Build your competitor’s business plan.
  One of the most interesting exercises your company can go through is to build your competitor's business plan. Most of us are accustomed to developing a business plan for ourselves, but building one for your competitor is an eye-opening experience.

Innovative Idea #10: Pre-screen applicants for desired behavior.
  Individuals who are prone to political behavior can be identified and screened out before they have a chance to disrupt the organization. The advice here is common sense: Why not avoid hiring problem people to begin with (as the old expression goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure)?

Source: “The End of Office Politics as Usual: A Complete Strategy for Creating a More Productive and Profitable Organization,” by Lawrence Serven, (AMACOM, January 2002)

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