Getting Rid of the Politics in Your Office

One of the biggest killers of productivity is not a lack of innovation, productive systems or visionary thinking, its politics. UK studies show that the average manager wastes one and a half days a week on dealing with politics. When people focus on internal petty issues it is incredibly distracting and they spend less time executing and getting work done. Also politics results in a tremendous amount of negative emotion in the organisation leading to poorer performance.

Why do we have politics?

It generally starts when someones actions are perceived to having ill intent. Your manager takes you off a certain project to put you on another one. You walk away and start to create a narrative in your head, where they have some sinister plan to undermine you. By the next morning you are seething. You rally your team members to support you against the manager and you withdraw from work.

Most examples of conflict in the work place tend to come from people making up stories in their head about the other person, without actually having an open conversation about the situation.

How do we have a politics free work place?

There are three key principles.

  1. Self awareness: We “Show Up” very differently to how we think we show up. Most of the time we are not aware of our own behaviour. We may think we are ‘motivating’ our staff when they see it as excessive pressure. Self awareness is a skill that benefits any team member. Why do we show up differently to how we think we show up? We judge our behaviour on our intention, other people judge our behaviour on our actions. You can have beautiful and wonderful intentions yet your behaviour can be incredibly dysfunctional. The key is to be more aware of our behaviour, constantly ask yourself “how is this behaviour being perceived?”. Even go as far as give other people permission to pull you up when you are doing certain behaviours you are trying to eliminate.
  2. Look for good intent. The second step is when someone in your work place offends you, could your default position be “maybe their intention was very different to how they just behaved then”. In other words could your first thought be to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume good intent.
  3. Have real conversations: The third one is to talk openly with the person that offends you. The key here is the language you use. Of course we all know that we must use ‘I’ words not ‘you’ words. For example we don’t say “you made me feel really mad and upset during that meeting”, rather we say “during that meeting I became upset when …..”. You words are accusatory while I words are much safer.

However there is a deeper layer to add. Ask them what was their intention and then outline how you felt after the behaviour in question. For example:

“Hi Barry, the other day in that meeting when you said my team had to step up, what was your intention behind that comment?”

“Well I just really want us to nail that target so we elevate the profile of our department and I would really like to hand you all a bonus at the end of the year”

“I knew that your intention was good but I walked away with the impression that we were slacking off and needed to be pulled into line.”

“I am so sorry, in no way do I think that, you guys have been an amazing group, I couldn’t be any happier I just thought that we can be even better.”

Thats a very different conversation to “I cant believe you said that to us, you are having a bad influence on this team, you don’t consider the fact that we are working our butts off for you.”

Case studies

I recently ran a full day workshop at a school in Victoria. Before lunch I presented the research on intention vs behaviour. During the lunch break the principle came up to me and said, “That stuff is gold, I have just used it during lunch to diffuse a possibly ugly situation.” I asked her to elaborate. She said “I was walking past one of the class rooms when I noticed all this junk and old equipment spread across the hall way.” She went in the room and asked the teacher where that had came from. He said “From in here, I asked the maintenance guys to take all this stuff away 3 days ago, they haven’t done it so I got sick of it and moved it myself. Now it is their problem.” She said “I can see that this has really upset you, what is your intention here” He said “I just want to get my room sorted for the kids when they come back next week”. She replied “While that is a very admirable intention how do you think that looks to the maintenance guys, they are not ignoring you their workload is just huge right now. What sort of a signal do you think it sends to them?” He looked at her and said “Damn, who do I have to apologise to?”

Following a presentation in Brisbane a woman came up to me and said, I love that strategy to reduce conflict between people. She said I have two people who are not getting on in my team I am going to try it. Three weeks later I got an email from her saying that she sat these two people down and asked each of them to give their side of the story. They each pointed out the original behaviour that the other person had done causing them to take offense. Following this she asked each of them to articulate what was their intention in that moment where they offended the other person. She said this completely changed the conversation. They both realised that their was no sinister intent behind the other persons actions, rather a misunderstanding. She then shared my technique with the entire team. Following this the team adopted a new mantra in the office. “We don’t do drama!” If something happens they have an open discussion and move on. She said she is amazed at the amount of angst and time it saves.

If you are over office politics make sure you practice these three steps:

  • Be self aware.
  • Look for good intent.
  • Have real conversations.

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