Curing the Dysfunctional Workplace

Office politics: They are divisive, unpleasant … and in the view of most experts, inevitable.”There is no gathering of three or more persons that is free of politics,” says Susan RoAne, who speaks and writes on management issues. “It happens in the church, in the family, in charity organizations. You just have to make sure they are at a minimum.”

Fortunately, business owners do have the power to keep things under control.

“The owner sets the tone,” says Laurie Rozakis, author of A Complete Idiot’s Guide to Office Politics. “It all comes from the top. If you are a gossip and rumormonger and treat people unkindly and some better than others, it will filter down.”

Here are some general rules on how to keep in-store politics from becoming a problem in your business:

  • Know the signs, and watch for them. “When you walk into the break room and people stop talking, what do you think they’re talking about?” Rozakis says. “It’s not Iraq.”

  • Always be 100% honest and straight in dealings with people. Once people lose faith in you, it’s difficult to win that faith back.

  • Treat your staff as a team. Try not to single out “stars.”

  • Allow people time to correct their mistakes. Don’t jump in right away if something’s wrong; give them a chance to correct it on their own.

  • Involve all levels of staff in major decisions whenever possible. It helps give workers a sense of control, which is essential to job satisfaction.

  • Go out of your way to be nice to your employees. It’s hard to cause trouble for someone who is bending over backward for you.

  • Watch what you say in e-mail. E-mail can bring out the worst in people. Don’t use it to solve problems; it’s better to talk with people face-to-face. And certainly never put in writing what you wouldn’t say to someone in front of you.

  • Have an open door policy—literally. When a boss’s office door is closed, employees assume something big is going on … and they’re usually right.

  • Have an open door policy—figuratively. Be visible. Let employees know they can come to you with problems or concerns. Frequently ask your employees’ opinions.

  • When employees have a problem, listen until you completely understand what is being said. Make a sincere effort to “get” the other person’s point of view, no matter how misguided it might seem initially. When you give people the opportunity to air their opinions, they are more likely to listen to yours.

  • Don’t take sides in a dispute before you know all the facts. When someone complains about a fellow employee, either invite that person into the meeting or withhold judgment until you speak to the other party. In interpersonal disputes, sometimes the two warring parties just need to be separated. And before you brand everyone involved as childish, consider that the problem could be structural. Overlapping or colliding responsibilities may make confrontation inevitable.

  • Get information out as early as possible, and keep people informed of even small changes in your company. “When people don’t know something, they get nervous and make things up,” RoAne says. “People like to be in control, and that means being in the information loop. Make sure they hear things from you and not their co-workers.”

  • Explain the reasons for your actions thoroughly. When people understand why you did something, they are less likely to second-guess. And if a false rumor is going around, stamp it out immediately.

  • Institute major changes gradually. This is especially important if you have staff members who are used to doing things a certain way.

  • Put together and distribute an employee handbook so employees know what the rules are. Be sure not to apply the rules selectively. If you let one employee break a rule, maybe that rule should be reconsidered.

  • Critique people’s ideas or actions. Don’t critique the people themselves.

  • Always compliment your staff members when they deserve it. It helps them maintain their self-confidence and self-esteem.

  • Recognize that people have different working and personal styles. Learn to respect those differences.

  • Measure people with objective criteria everyone understands. That’s the advice of Dr. Andrew DuBrin, author of Winning Office Politics. “Nothing can be totally objective, but at least move in that direction,” he says.

  • Remember the saying: “Think Yiddish. Speak British.” We’ve all seen bosses lose their tempers and say something intemperate. Then they calm down and assume everything is all right. Not necessarily. In most cases, the target of the boss’s wrath will remember what was said and carry the wound for a long time. So next time you feel an explosion coming on, close your eyes and count to 10. Or take a walk. Or vent to a colleague or spouse. Remember, you can always have another word later. But it’s impossible to take back something you’ve already said.

  • If things get really crazy, consider hiring a shrink—for your business. There is a psychological sub-specialty called “business therapy,” with therapists who do nothing but heal troubled companies. “Sometimes an intervention can work wonders,” Rozakis says.