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When It Comes to Employee Morale, Office Politics Can Be Politically Incorrect

Office politics can be difficult to define, but one thing is certain: there’s no getting around them. For some, mastering office politics is the key to their careers. Others would like to avoid them altogether. And the impact on employee morale, depending on whom you ask, can range from favorable to fatal. Many organizations use employee surveys to help understand and address office politics and employee morale issues before they get out of hand.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle noted in his book, “Politics,” that man is, by nature, a political animal. So it’s no surprise that political animals of all shapes and sizes can be found roaming around the office.

The definition of office politics may be a bit ambiguous, but wherever you find human beings in an office environment, you’re bound to have office politics. They’re used to gain power in the workplace, or by many accounts, misused. Their competitive nature can be used in a positive sense, but office politics can also be damaging to employee morale.

“I believe that office politics are simply the ‘dark side’ of human nature,” said Barry L. Brown, president of a Florida-based consulting firm. “It’s been my experience that office politics are counter-productive at best and destructive at their worst.”

At their worst, office politics contribute to low employee morale when decisions made by management are deemed unfair and biased. When an undeserving employee with limited skills or a bad reputation gets the big raise or promotion, it rattles the foundation of the workplace. Other employees, especially ones more deserving, may conclude that the rationale for the reward is that the employee is sucking up and playing the office politics game.

It’s no wonder office politics are looked upon with disdain. The term itself conjures up secret backroom deals, rumor mongering, favoritism, self-promotion, and duplicity.

“There are only two options regarding office politics,” said Brown. “Either they add to or subtract from employee morale. My experience would underscore the latter.”

While office politics may seem the norm in many places, the effects can be “devastating,” says Michael La Voy, Vice President of Operations at a San Diego-based consulting firm. Office politics can cause problems for employees caught up in the political game. And, they can have a trickle-down impact on the bottom line when workers and management are consumed by these issues instead of focusing on their jobs.

“People lose their motivation to achieve and often any ownership that management may have built into their workforce,” said La Voy. “Resignation or transfer is often the result, or even worse, vindictiveness or apathy. All end up undermining company goals or growth strategies.”

While office politics may be a workplace fact of life, containing or controlling them is possible with the right direction. At the heart of office politics are employees trying to gain control of their careers. It is often closely associated with office gossip, but the complexion changes when those taking part in the gossip use it to their advantage. When gossip ceases to be a social activity and becomes a self-serving tool, then it has crossed over the line into politics.

Management can address office politics, consequently boosting employee morale, in a number of ways. First, performance at the workplace must be stressed. There is no clearer indication of office politics than a blatant underperformer being recognized. Employees must be rewarded based on their achievements, not as payback or as favors.

“Open and attentive managers and taking immediate action when behaviors that divide the workforce are spotted can keep office politics to a minimum,” said La Voy. “Companies often hurt themselves through minimization, passing the buck, and outright denial. A clear message to the workforce contributes to the overall goal and how each segment helps to support the goals of the other.”

Not everyone thinks office politics drag down a company. Howard J. Ross, president of a Maryland-based consulting firm, says there is nothing wrong with office politics as long as they occur in a format where all voices are heard, and there is a productive angle to them.

“Office politics are like national politics,” said Ross. “They are inevitably driven by a desire for power and control. All offices have political ways; however, some are functional and some dysfunctional. When the process is honest, open, and above board, it is a healthy way for decisions to be made and for people to be involved.”

Brown, however, sees office politics as a scourge of the workplace and is quite skeptical about putting a positive spin on them.

“The first person to come up with a way to successfully curtail office politics, absent physical abuse or prison sentences, will become an overnight millionaire,” said Brown. “I believe as long as there are three people or more involved in any long-term endeavor, office politics will always surface.”

If you would like to learn more about how employee and customer surveys can help you “see inside the crystal ball” contact NBRI at 800-756-6168.

Dr. Jan West, Ph.D.

Organizational Psychologist

National Business Research Institute, Inc.

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