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Office politics (The Cambridge Judge Business Debate podcast series)

Though seemingly trivial, office politics can affect the performance of employees and organisations. The latest podcast in the Cambridge Judge Business Debate series asks how can we improve them?

Philip Stiles, Mark de Rond, Simon Stockley, Michael Kitson
L-R: Philip Stiles, Mark de Rond, Simon Stockley, Michael Kitson

In this episode, joining podcast host Michael Kitson, University Senior Lecturer in International Macroeconomics at Cambridge Judge Business School, are Cambridge Judge colleagues Philip Stiles, University Senior Lecturer in Corporate Governance; Mark de Rond, Professor of Organisational Ethnography; and Simon Stockley, Senior Faculty in Management Practice.

This is the 16th in a series of “Cambridge Judge Business Debate” podcasts featuring faculty and others associated with Cambridge Judge Business School and the broader Cambridge community.

This latest podcast focuses on office politics – the good and the bad – and ways to make office politics contribute to organisational performance rather than cause disruption.

Here is an edited transcript of some of the podcast discussion:

What is office politics, and how can it be positive for an organisation?

Michael Kitson: “‘Office politics’ has a bad name and can often be very disruptive. Given this, how can companies organise themselves and what should workers do to yield the best possible results in the most positive office environment?”

Philip Stiles: “‘Office politics’ is a very broad term: can it be good and can it be bad? I suppose the answer is that both are possible. Office politics are good if you want to advance your interests and your own career, but office politics are bad if there is harassment or bullying or people feeling that they’re part of an ‘out group’. Some people may feel office politics promotes competition between people, and competition drives performance; others feel competition drives more unwelcome behaviour in terms of status or demeaning people or marginalising people.”

Mark de Rond: “There is a very big bad side to office politics and the suspicion of office politics, and that’s the effect it has on individuals’ self-censoring. If I suspect office politics plays a big role in organisations I’m much less likely to tell you what I really think at certain moments of time, and self-censoring means that people in the organisation won’t hear all they need to know to move the organisation forward.”

Balancing collaboration and competition

Michael Kitson: “In this university there is a big stress on collaboration and congeniality, so how do you stress the benefits of collaboration with the fact that you may also need some competition as well? It’s a difficult one to deal with.”

Simon Stockley: “The devil is in the details, but one thing you see repeatedly in these very rapidly growing startups is what a tremendous increase in power does to the founding team – you have all manners of dysfunctional behaviour creeping out. You also see intra-organisational teams set up in a competing nature: that needn’t necessarily be a bad thing, but certainly some of the practices in rapidly scaling technology ventures can be quite harmful.”

Mark de Rond: “The question is how do you find that sweet spot where you want people to collaborate but you don’t want to weed out competition? One way is to try to maintain a level of transparency throughout. Transparency can fuel competition, but at the end of the day because there is transparency it will leave people feeling it’s fair game. In sports, they find a way for people who are innately competitive to somehow have some fun competing in a way that won’t derail the overall project.”

Dealing with the difficult leader

Philip Stiles: “Often leaders drift into creating an ‘out group’ by default, by gathering people around them who are very similar to them, and that’s a very forgivable thing; but there’s also a situation where people are marginalised and feel they are being briefed against, and that creates a toxic culture. There’s a distinction between acts of omission, in which mistakes are made, and where you have people set out to be deliberately non-transparent or deliberately tough or to affect people in a malign way, and that becomes very, very damaging.”

Simon Stockley: “There is something called the ‘dark triad’ of three closely related psychological states. There is psychopathy, narcissism or self-love, and Machiavellianism or being extremely manipulative. The best advice for people like that is simply to avoid them, because you’re not going to beat them.”

Mark de Rond: “One practical thing is to look for a silver lining: there may be very good reasons a person is being a certain way, and it may be temporary because someone is going through a tough time. Or you might find ways to work around people creatively: make them a consultant to a team rather than a member of a team, or put them in charge of a small unit where the toxicity is contained but it doesn’t feel like a humiliation for them.”

Philip Stiles: “One thing is not to underestimate is how attractive some of these people can be; there is a reason these people become chief executives – they may be toxic but they are charismatic and they have great personal energy and have a kind of gravitational pull about them. So the political thing is tricky: people will put up with a lot just to be around certain kinds of characters even though they are difficult characters, because they are on some kind of journey, some kind of path.”

Safety first

Michael Kitson: “How do you go about creating safe zones or safe spaces in organisations?”

Mark de Rond: “If you need to have a difficult conversation, one technique is to create two columns on a sheet of paper: on the left side write down everything you plan to say today, and on the right side write down all you would like to say – and then figure out a type of language that moves at least some of the right side to the left side. There was a great example involving Matthew Fleming, who played cricket for England. His captain had to tell him he wasn’t playing in a one-day Test match in India, so he said: ‘Matthew, I don’t know what we’re going to do without you. I have no idea. But we’re going to try.’ It may sound facetious but it’s really clever, because it shows that language can be really, really helpful.”

Michael Kitson: “But that’s a difficult skill for people to have.”

Mark De Rond: “But therein lies the good news: people are so poor at this that you don’t have to be perfect to make a big difference.”