Office politics are a hot topic for today's employees, with 53%
of people feeling they need to play office politics to get ahead. When one hears the words "office politics," they may think back to:
- That horrible manager who only promoted their friends
- The colleague who gossips and stirs up drama
- The leader who steps on others to get ahead
The above examples depict political behaviors that can erode your employees' experience within your organization.
The reality is that office politics are a natural part of group dynamics. If managed and influenced positively, office politics can help move the needle on projects and even help your employees progress and gain influence. However, when political behavior turns negative, your people will start to feel it.
When office politics go sour, the environment can become toxic, bureaucratic, and feel like a popularity contest. So what can you do as a small business owner to help protect your corporate culture from the impact of negative office politics? Here's what our group of experts suggests!
Office politics: What are they and who is affected by them?
Office politics are behaviors that workers demonstrate to advance their personal agenda, often at the expense of others. These activities are carried out because people feel it's the best way for them to succeed in the system they're working in.
In many cases, employees use negative tactics to make others look bad or to make themselves look good. Toxic office politics examples include:
- Gossiping or spreading rumors
- Backstabbing other employees
- Withholding information others need to perform their job
- Forming alliances against employees
- Letting colleagues fail without helping
When a company becomes entrenched in politics, the employees who work within its structure can begin to feel frustrated. Employees who work in highly political environments feel that their work won't drive impact without the proper positioning or alliances.
Often, employees will opt to "sit out" of politics. While this may help them manage the emotional load of politics, it does change how these politics impact their career.
The impact of toxic office politics
Navigating toxic office politics can feel like an entire second job for some employees. We spoke with therapist Rebecca Pollak, MSW
, who sees many patients trying to navigate tricky political environments. As a result, Pollak observes the following adverse experiences in her practice:
Employees experiencing burnout
When it comes to workplace politics, those with a negative experience are more susceptible to burnout. Pollak says that "To climb the ladder, employees feel they need to exceed expectations while navigating complex office politics. Office politics become a heavy second load to carry. This places employees at risk of burnout. It often also leads to feelings of resentment and disconnection from their employer."
The impact of burnout is far-reaching and can seep into every aspect of your employee's life. According to the Deloitte burnout report, "91 percent of respondents say having an unmanageable amount of stress or frustration negatively impacts the quality of their work."
Decreased opportunity for career growth
Toxic office politics can also impair your employees' perception of their career growth within your organization.
Pollak states, "Office politics create dysfunctional environments where individuals experience feelings of hopelessness about remaining in their current position. Clients often report that having a great skill set is only half the battle. They will feel held back if their work style doesn't necessarily mesh with their boss's management style."
Toxic office politics can also impair your employees' perception of their career growth within your organization.
When employees feel they have opportunities for career growth, they are:
- Better engaged
- More loyal
- Increase the value of the work they bring to your organization
If toxic workplaces and mismatched working styles are holding your employees back, you will likely notice a dip in their engagement or desire to keep growing.
Mental health can decline
Finally, regarding the personal impact highly political environments have on your employees, their mental health and self-esteem could take a significant hit. Pollack explains, "Individuals with lower levels of self-esteem are particularly at risk to be negatively impacted by office politics. Rather than acknowledge the reality of office politics, they tend to look inwards and blame themself, failing to acknowledge the other factors at play."
The impact of office politics on your business
Besides worrying about your employees' well-being, there are significant business impacts that toxic workplace politics can have on your bottom line. We've provided two examples below, but the negative effects are not limited to these scenarios.
Increase in distraction-seeking behavior
When employees feel disengaged, burnt out, or stressed at work, they may be inclined to participate in a variety of activities to distract them from work, including watching TV and other non-work related videos.
When it comes to distractions, one study suggests that "companies can lose more than $8,800 per year for each employee. At a company with 5,000 employees, this number could grow to be more than $44 million per year."
With companies like Google and Meta claiming that productivity is at an all-time low
, poor workplace politics will only increase issues your employees may be having with productivity.
Difficulty retaining your employees
Another impact of poor office politics within the workplace can result in difficulty retaining employees. Your top employees want to work somewhere they will have respect and be treated fairly.
Pollak says, "In light of the great resignation, individuals are choosing to leave more bureaucratic environments to avoid having to contend with office politics."
One study done by Pew research found that 57% of employees who quit their jobs in 2021 did so because they felt a lack of respect in their workplace.
What can leaders do to create a more positive environment?
If you're noticing the politics of your workplace are threatening the culture, here are a few suggestions to help mitigate the problem.
Lead with vulnerability
Leaders who act authentically, own up to mistakes, and share vulnerabilities will inspire others to do the same. Poor behavior like information hoarding, gossip, displaying favoritism, and micromanagement often stem from people who feel like their position of power or job is threatened. It may also stem from individuals not having clear insight into management decisions and feeling they need to protect themselves.
Leaders who act authentically, own up to mistakes, and share vulnerabilities will inspire others to do the same.
If you create an environment where people feel safe and information is shared transparently, you're likely to reduce this kind of behavior.
Bring conflict to the surface and encourage dialogue
If you're noticing a lot of back-channel discussions about certain people, events, or gossip happening, bring this up to the group in a safe way. Of course, to be effective, this will require psychological safety within your team. People need to feel secure sharing openly and know what they say won't be used against them.
You can also bring conflicts to the surface by having regular and 2-way meetings with your employees, where they have the space to share more about the conflict in private.
Advocate and teach tolerance for differences
Pollak also states that many clashes in the workplace are simply rooted in personality differences or disagreements in how people approach problems. If you're noticing these problems bubbling up, consider having formal training on different communication styles.
You could also include a personality assessment test during the onboarding process so that new hires better understand their own characteristics and communication styles. They can use this to discuss how to best work with their managers early in their onboarding process.
Help bring minority groups into the informal structures that exist
You may never get rid of office politics. Still, you can help teach people outside of the everyday systems how to gain influence on the inside of these structures. Some initiatives to help people learn include formal training on how to:
- Build relationships
- Influence others
Providing your minority employees equal access to mentorship, career development opportunity, and support also helps them break down the barriers to informal networks.
One tactical suggestion is for members of the leadership team to openly share their stories about how they achieved success. This can be done through formal company-wide leadership development round tables.
Research shows that when leaders talk openly about "times when they benefited from a helping hand, inside information, or key relationships,"
it can encourage employees at any level to leverage office politics positively.
Have a robust HR process in place to help employees
If you have employees who are suffering from poor office politics on their team, HR should be there to help them. They can support employees by:
- Having a formal mediation process in place to surface any conflict
- Formally documenting poor behavior
- Helping the employee switch teams when and if possible
- Allowing the employee to work from home. This may help negate some of the toxic effects of office politics
- Disciplining poor behavior
Pollak says, "One effective strategy leaders can employ is implementing regular anonymous 360 reviews. This will give your employees the chance to address negative office politics early on. It also provides employees with an outlet to address any issues they might be experiencing with their manager in a safe, confidential setting".
What can employees do when they are dealing with complicated office politics?
As an employee, there are steps you can take to improve the health of your work life.
Acknowledge the reality
Pollak says, "If you feel that toxic office politics are impacting your job satisfaction, it's important to take the time to acknowledge this reality."
She recommends that people be honest with themselves and have an open dialogue about the impact of negative office politics. By naming the effect, she says that employees can begin to formulate and imagine possible solutions.
Acknowledging this reality can also mean that employees should keep an ear to the ground to better understand the political landscape of their organizations. While they should not participate in gossip or rumors, Robert Half
recommends keeping yourself informed and aware of what is happening around you.
Establish clear targets
Pollak also recommends being direct with your manager and setting clear targets. This may require some managing-up on the employee's part.
She says, "I always encourage my clients who feel that politics are getting in the way of a promotion to discuss specific goals and targets with their manager. This, then, becomes a reference point that can be revisited during performance reviews."
Develop strong boundaries with your phone, email, and schedule.
Revisit your boundaries
If you cannot change your working situation, you'll need to develop strong boundaries with your phone, email, and schedule. A boundary can sound like, "I will give myself 25 minutes after work to vent about what is frustrating me, but after that, I won't let it consume any more of my time." Or, "just because other people are gossiping at work, does not mean I should join them."
Build your support network
Employees can set themselves up for success by creating a coalition of allies.
Employees can start building their network by:
- Sharing credit for positive outcomes rather than taking all the credit for themselves
- Being reliable and consistent with the stakeholders they work with
- Going the extra mile and providing additional support to teammates in need. This will help build goodwill with your colleagues
- Being open to sharing knowledge and information (rather than hoarding it)
Having support across different areas of the organization and various levels of seniority will help protect employees and propel them forward.
Workplace politics will still happen, but you can manage your response
We spend most of our days at work, so naturally, the politics of our workplace will influence our overall well-being. At the individual level, employees should learn to attune themselves to the political landscape
of their organization without getting sucked into the drama and power plays.
For employers, by recognizing the impact that workplace politics may be having on your employees, you can take steps to improve them.