Gossip, flattering boss, taking credit for others’ work common issues: Survey

Office politics negatively affect productivity, collaboration, say experts
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/10/2012

Gossiping, spreading rumours, flattering the boss to gain favour and taking credit for others’ work are just some of the forms of office politics engaged in by more than one-half of employees, according to a survey by Robert Half.

“Left unchecked, it can be quite negative because staff spend too much time navigating the political waters, for example, trying to regain credit, trying to avoid the gossip hound or trying to correct a piece of gossip that’s been spread that is not true,” said Christine Lucy, director at Robert Half Canada in Toronto.

Four in 10 workers said they participate in office politics only when it pertains to issues affecting them directly, while 14 per cent said they do so because it’s important for them in getting ahead, found the survey of 700 workers in Canada and the United States.

“Politics in an organization is inevitable,” said Monika Morrow, senior vice-president of career management at Right Management in Toronto. “Whenever you have two or more people working together, particularly if they have competing interests, there will be some element of office politics at play.”

The most common form of office politics is gossiping and spreading rumours (54 per cent), found the survey.

“Gossiping, for some people, is a way to interact, a way to be popular,” said Lucy. “Chatting about other people, (they) make it humorous and other people want to listen to (them). It’s not right, but for some individuals, they go through this route to try to advance themselves at work and it ultimately does backfire.”

Flattering the boss to gain favour (20 per cent) is the second most common form of office politics, found the survey.

“Particularly today, in this environment, when organizations in a difficult economy are experiencing limited resources, such as opportunities for promotion or raises, this does in and of itself create some competition for the boss’ favour,” said Morrow.

More than four in 10 (44 per cent) employees said they believe “who you know” is what determines promotions, while 39 per cent said it’s job performance, found a survey by Right Management of 500 Canadian and American employees.

Leaders need to make sure raises and promotions are based on merit and not favouritism or preferential treatment, said Morrow. Job postings should be made public, everybody should have an opportunity to apply and the selection process should be transparent, she said.

The third most common form of office politics is taking credit for others’ work (17 per cent), according to the Robert Half survey.

“The credit thief is the person who loves to steal the spotlight,” said Lucy.

“They will sometimes take credit for other people’s work; they will use other individual’s success to make themselves look better in the work environment.”

Office politics of this nature can be particularly harmful when they are an attempt to undermine others, said Karl Aquino, professor at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

“Maybe the person they are targeting is perceived as a threat or maybe it’s a direct rival,” he said. “You’re vying for the same position or you want status and the other person is an obstacle and you want to bring them down. This is very common in organizations — there are only so many positions to go around.”

One way to prevent this is to “link people’s fates to one another,” said Aquino. This way, when one person fails or does poorly, the others are affected, so this should reduce the incentive to try to harm colleagues because they are only harming themselves, he said.

Office politics can have a negative impact on collaboration and teamwork, said Lucy.

“If someone is gossiping about me, that could be very stressful on the relationship so are we now going to work as well together as we possibly could?”

Productivity also takes a hit when office politics get out of hand, said Morrow.

“If you have people focused on playing office politics, they’re not focused on getting the job done and if you have that dip in productivity, then you probably don’t have great customer satisfaction, you’re not making your numbers, not meeting the goals because everybody is so distracted from this negative behaviour,” she said.

Preventing politics

One way to reduce office politics is to make sure employees have opportunities to get to know each other better, said Aquino.

“In our day-to-day lives, we’re often so busy, we don’t interact as much as we might have, we might work remotely, we’re not face to face and these environments don’t lend themselves well to building the kind of trusting relationships that reduce these sorts of behaviours,” he said.

There also needs to be a clearly communicated zero-tolerance policy, said Lucy. There should be a bullying and harassment policy in place — which would include gossiping or backstabbing — that all employees have to read and sign off on, said Morrow.

HR can be of great help in dealing with office politics by providing guidance and coaching to managers on how to deal with these types of workplace conflicts, said Lucy.

If an issue does arise, management needs to address it swiftly, she said.

“They should make their expectations very clear about behaviours that are accepted and not accepted in the workplace and then deal with those that refuse to toe the line that continuously, negatively affect the overall environment,” she said.

Leaders need to make sure they stay involved with their staff and know what political maneuverings are going on in the office so they can intervene when necessary, said Morrow.

“You can never get rid of politics 100 per cent, it will always be there because it’s people, but I think it’s putting the systems, the processes in place so you can work towards that collaborative environment as opposed to a competitive environment which is destructive.”

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