The battle for the prime minister’s office is getting nastier. Not only are Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd sniping at each other, but their Labor colleagues appear desperate to stick the boots in too.
But this controversy contains some specific lessons for SMEs – after all, who hasn’t dealt with office politics in the past?
While you may not have two staff battling over who gets to be the chief executive, you may have two prospective department heads wanting the same job, or perhaps directors who aren’t on board with a specific direction and pushing to replace someone.
Office politics is brutal and can bring down a company completely. Here are five ways to stop it before it starts:
1. Build a culture of honesty, including a set of values
Office politics is at its worst in organisations where people don’t talk. If there is no culture of openness and honesty, staff will feel free to talk amongst themselves, spread rumours and not address issues directly.
Australian Institute of Management chief operating officer Angus MacAlister says it’s critical that leaders set up a clear set of values, where staff are able to talk openly about issues and address them without using spin and rumours to get their way. This can include setting out a charter or mission statement, but MacAlister says it’s more of a long-term goal embedded within the culture of the business.
“You would hope to see in all organisations a culture that rewards, and encourages, open and honest behaviour.”
“People see through spin all the time, it just doesn’t work. So setting clear personal and organisational goals, including milestones, with appropriate reporting mechanisms and a culture of honesty, can deliver results.”
“This is a culture thing, you need to have that feels comfortable enough to speak their minds.”
2. Give regular feedback
It’s concerning how many businesses don’t actually give their employees regular feedback on how they’re performing and how to fix any problems that are appearing in their work. MacAlister says it’s imperative bosses sit down with their staff and give feedback before bad performances turn into company-wide problems, and tensions begin to rise.
“Put real reporting mechanisms into your organisation. Part of that is the delivery of honest feedback, even when the feedback isn’t positive.”
“One of the most popular programs the AIM has been running is around leadership and tough conversations. People find it awkward to give honest feedback and be genuine, but people really appreciate it. If someone has done a poor job, the best thing you can do is tell them.”
3. Deal with tension straight away
If there’s a fight brewing between staff, you can’t just leave it and let it die, MacAlister says. Get the people involved in a room together, and figure out exactly what’s going on before it drags other people down.
“How quickly are you dealing with issues? When you hear about things going on, do you respond to it quickly enough?”
4. Address situations specifically, not generally
One big problem that occurs when office politics starts getting nasty is that managers don’t actually address the problem at hand – they just deal with it a general fashion and start to assume things based on what they’ve heard. This is the wrong approach.
MacAlister says managers and bosses need to sit down with the people involved and hash things out directly. There’s nothing worse than acting on second-hand information, which can breed other problems among staff.
“Get the people involved, sit down in a room, and ask them, ‘is what I’m hearing accurate?’ You want to nip problems in the bud, because in an organisation they will spread very quickly.”
5. Be completely open at all times
Part of extinguishing office politics before a fight breaks out is ensuring you’re always at the ready. If rumours start flying, tempers can rise fast and as MacAlister says, you need to be able to put out any fires before they appear.
That means being able to answer questions at all times, remaining approachable, and giving straight answers. Especially during periods of turmoil, such as a company sale or restructure.
“The trick is to make sure everything remains confidential, because it removes the heat from a situation. You want people focused on doing their jobs, and working on problems that benefit the company to solve.”