The View from HR

Office politics and bad morale stem from lack of clarity

June 3, 2012 

The older I get, the less patience I have with our major political parties.

During primary and election seasons (in other words, much of the time) they exploit differences between voters and encourage an “us versus them” mentality. Issues are personalized and people with honestly held but different opinions are often demonized.

Still, we pick our candidates, vote, then hope for the best.

Office politics can be just about as frustrating and have similar results. It prevents discussion and resolution of the real issues, rewards loyalty over results and personalizes important issue debates.

I believe the theory that office politics (and its cousin, bad employee morale) come from a lack of clarity in factors such as team purpose or goal, individual performance and merit, rewards and punishments, and what gets one promoted within a particular environment.

Hazy goals can sap morale

When individual employee and manager merit is unclear or unmeasured, people fill the void by finding a champion or joining a tribe. Think about it. If there is little way to know how you are doing – or whether your job and future will be honestly assessed – and you see others rewarded for non-productive behaviors, guess what you will do?

Once you join that champion or tribe, work becomes more about pleasing the champion or tribe than it does in rowing with others toward a common set of goals. That person or group becomes the entity to please. Your rewards flow from that direction. Your punishment for stepping out comes from there, too. Work becomes personalized for you, for your manager and peers, in a polarized manner much like a political party tries to foster. Us against them, and I rise or fall with my champion.

Toxic and energy-zapping

Workplaces infected with excessive office politics are toxic and energy-zapping. The kinds of tactics required to please your champion and do your essential job functions can be too much. Good people leave because they know the day will come that their champion falls out of favor, taking their future with them.

Executive leadership might not encourage office politics, but has allowed it to flourish from a lack of clarity at the top. When everyone knows what gets rewarded and where we are headed, it is more difficult for a champion or tribe to assemble support. People are guided and rewarded by the organization and by its managers in predictable and authentic ways.

Clarity reduces confusion and provides a basis for good decision-making. Clarity does not mean that there is a rule for everything or there are no gray zones. Clarity means that the ways for resolving gray issues, the risk that a mistake will be unfairly punished, and the foundations upon which we make choices are generally well known. All that “mission-vision-values” work has purpose, and one of its best effects is more clarity.

No workplace has perfect clarity and zero office politics. As long as humans run and work in businesses, unproductive behaviors will exist. Recognizing that office politics comes largely from the lack of clarity and transparency should be a major motivator to improve!

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is president and CEO of CAI Inc., a human resource management firm, with locations in Raleigh and Greensboro, that helps organizations maximize employee engagement while minimizing employer liability. For more information, visit www.capital.org.

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