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Corporate Politics 101: The Nine Signs of an Overly Political Organization

Well, the Democrats have taken over the House and Senate and people are waiting anxiously to see what happens. Will the new leaders make progress toward their ideals or will partisan bickering result in gridlock? Will new scandals take the place of the old ones? Sadly, most of our expectations seem to focus on the negative. Regardless of your party affiliation, you've probably concluded that the political process itself is too often antithetical to real progress.

Unfortunately, the same issues that cause problems in government—selfishness, greed, petty bickering, lust for power—can creep into your company's culture and impede productivity. Leaders must be vigilant about nipping “political” problems in the bud, before they spiral out of control.

Here are nine signs, along with remedies for each, that characterize an overly political organization:

Problem #1: Gridlock. Your company is at a standstill because no one can agree on what to do.

Remedy: Top leaders should reach a consensus of common goals. They should hold people accountable for following consensus guidelines during the decision-making process by doing the following: provide each person an opportunity to contribute, give people a chance to describe why they feel strongly about an idea with objective rationale when appropriate, listen to others' opinions before responding, and try to find common elements among the various ideas. Leaders can also develop shorter-term plans to try out some ideas, testing them for long-term use or giving multiple ideas a chance.

Problem #2: Bureaucracy. People are so bogged down in paperwork, red tape, and stifling rules that their progress is impeded.

Remedy: Leaders must clarify the decisions that individuals can make on their own, deciding which require additional input and which need to be deferred to others. For example, an employee may be able to make a less-than-$1,000 accommodation for a customer but may need approval from a supervisor for any amount above that level. You might also formulate task teams to review processes and levels of approval that can be reduced and streamlined. Encourage people to consider new processes or procedures instead of falling back on the “but we’ve always done it this way” excuse.

Problem #3: Grandstanding (aka brown-nosing). People pay lip service to leaders' ideas to flatter and curry favor with them, but have no real commitment to implementing change.

Remedy: Create a detailed plan for action, with clearly delineated roles and due dates. If individuals are held accountable for getting things done—and reporting to their peers and managers about progress—they are more committed to follow through.

Problem #4: The Two-Faced Two-Step. People say what they think the people they're talking to at the moment want to hear.

Remedy: Leaders are responsible for creating an atmosphere where employees feel comfortable being upfront and honest. Whenever possible, they should adopt the devil's advocate role to encourage employees to share bad news as well as good news. If employees describe the good points of a plan, ask them what could go wrong. Don’t “kill the messenger,” punishing those who bring up bad news or offer constructive criticism. Encourage open, honest, and direct feedback and thank people who voice their opinions.

Problem #5: Passing the Buck. No one takes responsibility for anything; people are quick to assign blame to someone else.

Remedy: Chronic finger pointing is a signal that employees operate in silos rather than as a team working together toward a common vision. Consider job shadowing or an orientation session to expose people to other parts of the business. For example, marketing representatives can ride with salespeople on their calls. In a well-known credit card company, every manager is required to answer customer service calls at least one time per month so they don't get too far away from the lifeline of the business. Ask people in different departments to share their goals and to outline what they need from each other.

Problem #6: Laziness, Clockwatching, and Poor Work Ethic. People have a sense of entitlement; they're just "putting in face time" until they can go home.

Remedy: Many workplaces need a shot of adrenaline. Find out about employees' likes, dislikes, interests, talents, hopes, and dreams. Take a personal interest in them as people and share your enthusiasm and vision with them. Find ways to set realistic but challenging goals related to their areas of interest and skills whenever possible.

And don't forget to coach them—provide ongoing feedback on what people do well and ask them for ideas on how things could be done more effectively. Build in mechanisms to offer small rewards for goal accomplishment, change, and innovation rather than for maintenance of the status quo.

Problem #7: Indirect Communication. Instead of talking to coworkers directly when they have a problem, employees complain to supervisors and talk about people behind their backs.

Remedy: Strive for transparency. Encourage individuals to ask questions and challenge the status quo. Gossip, rumors, and backbiting thrive in a closed-door work environment. When there are no secrets or off-limit conversations, the rumor mill starts to dissipate.
Make it clear that gossip and rumor won’t be tolerated. Participate in open forums on a regular basis and emphasize the fact that you're always accessible.

Problem #8: Pork-barreling. Influential employees push through expensive projects that serve only one small part of the company.

Remedy: In a high-functioning organization communicating the overall common vision and goals of the organization is a priority for leaders. They provide criteria for budget allotments and selection of projects based on how they contribute to the organization’s mission, values, and the estimated return on investment. When everyone is absolutely clear on what the company is working toward, pork-barreling is automatically curtailed.

Problem #9: Corruption. People are actually embezzling from the company, fudging reports, or engaging in other unethical or illegal behavior.

Remedy: Upholding ethical standards isn't a "nice-to-do"; it is a "must-do"—especially since the recent rash of corporate scandals. Leaders must clearly state the organization’s ethical code and then hold people accountable to it, with zero tolerance for violations. Leaders also model appropriate behaviors that they want to see in others. One suggestion is to establish a "whistle-blowers" forum for individuals who want to report unethical behavior without fear of repercussions.

Overcome Politics by Becoming a “VEO”
Once the nine political problems outlined above have been addressed, leadership can begin to transform the organization into what I call a “Vibrant Entrepreneurial Organization,” or VEO for short. A VEO is an organization made up of employees who feel a sense of ownership for the business. They are driven to innovate constantly, to execute relentlessly, and to work with a sense of passion. They do what is necessary to stay ahead of the competition.

A “VEO” is an Organization that:
  • Provides people with a big picture view so they feel empowered to take risks
  •  Inspires and nurtures employee loyalty
  • Supports high productivity while minimizing stress
  • Produces a winning tradition
  • Elevates communication to an art form

Once employees start seeing positive results, they won't need all the political distractions and dramas anymore. They'll be fulfilled by their work. That's what it's like to work for a Vibrant Entrepreneurial Organization. And once you break free of the political shackles holding you back, that's exactly where you'll be.