Preventing Factions from Flourishing at Work
Everyone says they hate corporate politics—until, of course, they need a favor.
Michael Porter defined politics as social attempts to gain power or consensus outside of sanctioned systems. In other words, it’s getting your needs met by making friends with powerful people, trading favors, or spreading information that makes certain perspectives appear attractive, or certain outcomes appear inevitable.
When that benefits the organization, we call it influencing, alliance building, and leadership. But too often, it slows down decision making and makes “sanctioned” channels totally useless. (Ever been in a meeting where everyone agreed with a decision, and then began campaigning for an alternative as soon as they left the room?) This can result in factions and foster an “us versus them mentality” that undermines your organization’s productivity.
If you're dealing with a new team or one that is relatively cohesive, you’re ahead of the game, so put the following practices into place to prevent factions from forming. It’s especially important to establish healthy norms if you know the team will be expanding or merging in the near future.
Select for team spirit. Hire people who see the team’s success as their own success, and vice versa. When interviewing, ask them about previous conflicts to suss out if they can understand other points of view or are solely focused on getting their way.
Plan it out. Build specific, transparent processes for politics-generating issues like budgets and promotions, and stick to them. Every. Single. Time. Make sure your teams are using the same tools/software or you’ll drive a wedge between people.
Encourage mobility between teams. Expose people to other teams and people who have more history at the company so they understand what the company’s been through and how it got to where it is today.
If you’re dropped into the middle of a tug of war, though, don’t despair. You can still increase understanding between the different factions:
Make individuals work it out. Don’t let people complain to you about someone behind their back; instead, insist they hash it out in a room together. Make sure you are prepared to mediate a difficult conversation, as things can get heated—or, just as unproductive, not addressed at all. And remember that your actions will speak louder than your words, so take care to model openness to others’ ideas and a willingness to disagree respectfully in meetings.
Conduct regular team retrospectives. Bring the whole team together to discuss what’s working, what’s not, and what policies everyone wants to put into place in order to improve relationships.
Heighten transparency. When you make a decision with political connotations, be explicit about the reasoning behind it. Conspiracy theories grow in the dark.
Reflect on the state of the organization. What personal beliefs, cultural habits or organizational processes might be keeping people from getting their needs met through normal channels? This is exactly why “Discovery” is the first part our client engagement—we survey and interview people in order to get to the root causes.
Politics is a canary in a coal mine for organization design. If you sense people are spending more of their time on impression management than on carrying out the work, an intervention is critical.