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Avoiding destructive office politics is key to business success

Article published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on April 18, 2022 Revised at 8:00 am.

We are all familiar with the term political capital. Relationship capital is more descriptive. It’s the relationships you build with colleagues that help achieve mutual objectives. 

These relationships are characterized by trust, ethics, honesty and transparency, all of which build good will between parties. You help your colleagues achieve their objectives, and they help you achieve yours. The people you are dealing with feel that there is no hidden agenda in what you are trying to accomplish, and that you are not playing politics at their expense. 

So, why do so many people play destructive office politics? They destroy relationship capital, rather than build it. In Aug. 2016, I wrote an article on this subject. This is an update of that article.

Throughout my career, I have watched the game of destructive office politics play out in many organizations. There are those who feel that the only way they can advance within an organization is at the expense of others. They deflect responsibility and often blame peers and subordinates for their own failures. 

They are usually good at “managing up.” To the senior leadership of the organization, they heap undue criticism on their peers. They destroy trust, and when trust is destroyed, the organization becomes toxic and dysfunctional.

I have often wondered why bosses put up with the actions of employees who play destructive office politics. Either they are blind to it or think that better results will be achieved rather than if the organization performed as a high performance team in which employees trusted each other. They are wrong.

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Bosses will often try to counsel this type of employee to get them to change, with mixed results. The employee will often deny their toxic behavior. Many times, their behavior is due to their personality. They won’t change. 

Eventually, employees who play destructive office politics are recognized for who they are and the damage they cause. They are either terminated, or depart on their own.

How should you defend against those who play political games that might undermine you? There is an old saying, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer,” ascribed by some to Chinese general and military strategist Sun Tzu (circa 400 BC) and by others to the 16th century political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli. This saying can also be applied to destructive office politics.

By keeping your adversaries close, you can gain an insight into what they are doing. You also have the opportunity to sway their thinking, and show them that undermining you is not a productive use of their time. You may be able to co-opt them, and get them to be one of your supporters rather than a detractor. However, once they violate your trust, you may never fully trust them again. Once lost, trust is very difficult to regain.

On various occasions during my career, I have been the target of political attacks by others. Did I ever confront the individual? No. I felt that would be counter-productive. Whether or not to confront someone is a personal decision, and depends on each individual situation.

How did I successfully cope with these attacks? I built relationship capital and alliances with others by helping them accomplish their objectives. Through these alliances, I was made aware of political attacks that were not visible to me. I did the same for those with whom I had developed alliances.

So, how can you rise above destructive office politics? Meet your commitments to others. Build trust with your peers. Develop alliances. Keep your adversaries close. Build relationship capital. Most importantly, do your job and achieve results, and let those results and your reputation speak for themselves.

 

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.

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