Managing Office Politics

The term “office politics” refers to overall culture at work, but often in a way that implies negative connotations. I usually hear about it in terms of how workplaces gossip and cliques manifest from informal power struggles.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Office politics can be transformed to a positive culture where each person feels valued, engaged and supported in a way that enables their success. Each person knows that their teammates have their back – whether they’re present or not. Every person in the organization plays a part in creating and sustaining such a culture, but management plays a key role in either generating or discouraging such an environment.

What kind of culture are you nurturing? Think about who you work with and answer these questions for the whole range of people you work with, rather than just the best or worse case scenarios.

  • I tend to see what others are doing wrong.
  • There are people that I’d rather not deal with.
  • Certain people are making my job or life really difficult.
  • I tend to like to vent about others to my work friends.
  • I love to share a juicy story about a colleague.
  • I try to spend as much time as possible with the people that can help me.
  • I feel better when others confirm to me that I am right.
  • I know that I’m right most of the time.
  • I don’t feel worthy of or capable in my job.
  • I wish that others would get their act together and start doing their job.
  • I am not ready to be involved in decision-making.
  • It’s important to me that I’m viewed as productive and competent at work.

If you’re human and being honest with yourself, you probably had at least a few of these statements feel true to you in at least some circumstances. It’s natural. We all do it. However, please be aware that this tendency, which is often subconscious, is what contributes to a negative work culture. The Arbinger Institute calls this natural human tendency going into the “box”.

Going forward, try to catch yourself in the act when you’re in or going into the box. What does your body feel like? What thoughts are you having? What sorts of situations cause you to feel this way?

Now think about what you tend to do when in the box. Are you at your best, most helpful and peaceful self? Do you tend to be productive and creative when in the box? Probably not. We tend to actually lose productivity, collegiality and/or work quality when distracted by negative feelings.

Therefore, it makes sense to manage the box. Notice when you go in and know how to get yourself out. How can you find calm, peace, forgiveness and compassion for the person that is trying their best and struggling, just like you?

Creating the right office culture starts inside you. You can only give what you have, and if what you have is anger, resentment, entitlement, or victimhood, then that’s what you’ll sow at work. Instead, cultivate generosity, helpfulness, appreciation, and compassion inside and that’s what you can grow in others.

Read more about office politics in HBR here.

Office Politics

Office gossip

Office gossip

Jonathan Haidt, author of A Righteous Mind, says that gossip has helped the species survive by keeping cheaters in line. Gossip is a deterrent to bad behavior and warns the unaware. So, you shouldn’t feel guilty about spreading a little delicious news around the office, right?

I’m not so sure.

This argument makes perfect sense on one level. But on another, gossip can also create such a toxic environment that it can affect job satisfaction, employee retention and even the bottom line.

Imagine this scenario.   Suri complains about Ali to Tony. Tony then complains to three more people about Ali, who complains to his own team. Next, you have the Suri/Tony camp at war against Ali’s camp. Bad feelings grow and behavior deteriorates, even to the point of obstructionism and maybe even sabotage. In other words, though neither side is likely to see their own role in this dynamic, both are guilty of bad behavior. The gossip has fueled the behavior, rather than keeping it in check.

So next time you feel the need to gossip, think about how you might be fueling a political downward spiral that will likely affect you and how you feel about your workplace, either directly and/or indirectly. Also consider how you’re spending your time, which your employer is paying you to help the company be successful.

The more justified you feel in participating in toxic office politics, the more likely you should examine your own behavior. Remember the concept of projection: that behavior you dislike in others is actually a quality in yourself that you hate.   When I’m honest with myself, my hypocrisy becomes self-evident, which takes the steam out of my indignation. In its place emerges an opportunity for compassion, peace, and constructive problem-solving. How about spreading that?

Sovereign of My Delight, Hear My Complaining

– Thomas Morley

There’s nothing like a good bi*** session, especially when done in a gossip context. Sometimes I just need to go there and vent a little. I’m not proud of it, but it does serve a purpose besides making me feel better. Jonathan Haidt, author of A Righteous Mind, describes gossip as society’s way for keeping cheaters in line. So I’m basically just doing my civic duty.

But this blog is about behaving responsibly, not about justifying my bad behavior.   I view it like eating dessert. Sometimes it’s necessary (depriving yourself completely actually makes you eat more), so it should be done in a limited fashion and as constructive of a manner as possible. Here are my thoughts on the subject:

  • Keep it brief. Ranting for more than a minute or so is self-indulgent and makes you look worse than the person you’re complaining about.
  • Take ownership of your bad behavior. Confess to stirring up bad mojo, apologize to the listener, and you’ll be less likely to indulge for long.
  • Don’t make it personal. Focus on the behavior, not the person’s character or motivation. You might think they have ill intent or are evil, but you don’t know for sure. Actually, in my experience, most people are well-intentioned.  More likely, they are struggling with how to handle a difficult situation.  Also, when it becomes personal, it becomes harder to forgive that character flaw rather than that mistake.
  • Give him the benefit of the doubt. You’re more likely to receive it in return.
  • Just like you might want to take a walk after having that lovely Godiva, spend a moment thinking about how you might have contributed to the problem. In this manner, maybe a less than ideal situation can be a learning opportunity.
  • If you’re not there to solve the problem, you’re contributing to it.  End the session with what you’re going to do to either manage or improve the situation.

So here’s my gossip for today: I indulged in complaining about someone else yesterday and am having pangs of guilt this morning.

Don’t worry, it’s nothing that a little chocolate can’t cure.

Contempt and Miley Cyrus

The public tends to be fascinated with celebrities, their personalities and activities.  I know it has something to do with living vicariously through their beauty, success, talent, or whatever.    If I wish to adopt those qualities, I can mentally associate with that celebrity or sports team.  It’s not just a sports team.  It’s my sports team. Their victory is my victory.  OK, harmless enough.

It’s interesting then when a celebrity has a coup de grace.  The celeb du jour on the falling star (or rising, as some may argue) is Miley Cyrus.   Seems she’s the gal that we love to criticize, despise, scold, or feel contempt for this month.  Similarly in our personal lives, there is often a person we love to gossip about.  It’s deliciously sinful and indulgent.  It’s so much fun to focus on someone else’s bad judgment, mistakes, and faux pas.

Scandal is so much fun because it elicits our feelings of contempt.  Contempt is so gratifying because it allows us to feel morally superior without any responsibility (Jonathan Haidt, Happiness Hypothesis).  For example, if I criticize someone at work, then I have some sense of responsibility to do something about it – either fix the problem or elicit constructive discussions about the problem so that we can fix it together.  The same is true in my personal life.  Any problems are my responsibility, either directly or indirectly.

Have you ever been the subject of scandal or criticism?  When we’re criticized, we feel it is unfair, unfounded, and they just don’t understand.  Yes, it’s easier to judge than to try to understand or empathize with someone else.  So when we are feeling contempt for others it’s because we are indulging in a gratuitous exercise in judging, failing to empathize or understand.

In addition, we’ve probably made similar kinds of mistakes in our own past, since we’re more likely to be bothered by the things we hate about ourselves when we see them in others.  We are, in fact, hard wired for hypocrisy (Haidt).

I know, I hate to be a killjoy.  All the fun we’ve had gossiping and feeling contempt truly reflects more poorly on ourselves than it does the person we’re complaining about.  For me, it’s a lot like eating a bag of French fries.  I can’t really enjoy them since I know they’re so bad for me and will likely make me feel sick later.  Feeling contempt for others is pretty much the same thing for me.  It makes me feel sick to my stomach to be such a judgmental hypocrite. Now when I eat French fries or gossip, I indulge in one or two bites, then move on.  I’m human, after all.

Good thing there are so many other ways to have good, clean fun. How about complimenting someone or expressing gratitude for one of their good qualities or good deeds?  Their reaction, especially if the compliment is unexpected, is way more fun than even complaining about Miley Cyrus and her growing pains.

All:  Don’t forget to send me questions or topics you’d like for me to discuss.  Go either to this blog, email me at or to the Talk to Susanna link on the left.  Thanks!  Look forward to hearing from you!