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Lying, scheming and backstabbing: Do workplaces have to be like Game of Thrones?

Office politics play out in every business, says Julie Rowlands - but they don't have to be like the battle for the Iron Throne.

Every business could learn a lot about office politics from Ricky Gervais in his role as David Brent, manager in the TV series The Office. We could even go as far as saying that Shortland Street, which is a lot closer to home, might teach us a bit about the reality within New Zealand businesses. Or, for an example of extreme political manipulation, Game of Thrones provides many examples of less-than-ideal workplace dynamics.

Each of these shows is a satirical or exaggerated reflection of what goes on in an organisation and (apart, hopefully, from Game of Thrones) mostly they are pretty close to the truth. Office politics play out in every business and it is human nature and basic sociology to have power dynamics within a group.

All organisations are political in some way or another, and there are two core reasons why. The first is; work involves dealing with people and, secondly, humans are emotional creatures, all with our own needs, emotions and vulnerabilities. So, working in organisations and working with others is complex. To survive in these social systems we have to find out what works best, how we should behave and what we need to do to fit in.

Within a workplace context, we don’t have to look far to see, at the extreme edges, the sycophants, the creeps, the crawlers, the doormats, the grovelers, the “look at me” types, the leech, the manipulator, the hanger on, the status driven, the condescenders and the bullies to see that a diverse range of behaviours emerge in most organisations. Almost all of these behaviours develop over time as individuals adopt the behaviours that they believe will enable them to be successful and survive in their current workplace. All humans are driven by two core needs:

  • we want to belong; and
  • we want to achieve.

Should we be worried about office politics and the impact they have?

As a business owner the answer is yes, you should be worried, because there is a dark side. This is characterised by favouritism, with rewards tied to power and social networks, rather than objective performance and delivery. Often flattery and favour-doing can translate into being viewed as a top per-former, possibly resulting in long term career success. The impact is hugely negative when good people who work their tail off see others being promoted, people who they believe have destructively manoeuvred their way to the top. How much senior executive time in your organisation is spent politicking instead of producing?

People don’t leave jobs, they leave managers

Confidence in senior management is the most influential driver of engagement. In fact, people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers. The Corporate Leadership Council recently found that most engaged employees are 87% less likely to leave their organisation. With the high cost of replacing employees, it is best to avoid lack of engagement and create a healthy company culture. In today’s world, in which everyone from Director to the hourly paid worker should be focused on and concerned about the organisation and their own health and safety, it has been shown that office politics do cause more stress and strain. It decreases job satisfaction and increases intent to leave the organisation. The cost of replacement and high churn can be up to $50,000 even for a mid-level role. It is worth getting it right and it is worth understanding what you are doing in your business that may or may not engage your employees.

Some steps for an employer to consider:

  • Don’t pretend that office politics don’t exist
  • Understand the culture and the behaviours that are rein-forced and valued
  • Engage in truthful and consistent messaging about what is OK and what is not
  • Be transparent about the values that really do matter to the business
  • Ensure all HR practices are clear and unbiased
  • Ensure that employees with equal skills and performance are rewarded and recognised equally
  • Identify those people in the business who are most likely to use self-serving political behaviour

Some steps for the employee to consider:

  • Don’t engage in spreading gossip or rumours
  • Do contribute to objectives and understand the overall business plan
  • Make note of social networks and how best to fit in with these
  • Do learn to make allies and be open with these
  • Gain visibility for your achievements
  • Make and use work place connections to get things done

It is worth wondering how many professional service companies in New Zealand could actually say that the politics within their own business are reasonably constructive and don’t have too much of a negative impact on the culture and the people within? New Zealand has one of the highest rates of workplace bullying in the developed world, with an estimated one in five affected, according to Culture Safe NZ. What does this mean for your business and the politics and dynamics within? Most importantly: what are you doing about it?

It is important that we understand what factors within the business may give rise to the risk of psychological injury and identify appropriate preventative measures to manage the risks. We should be concerned about the stress and strain of destructive office politics and we should do something about it.

We need to be thankful that today we live in an era in which Game of Thrones is just a TV show, set in a world where hitting the glass ceiling means being thrown through the moon door, or contract negotiations are completed with a sword fight. For some businesses this might be closer to the truth than we realise. Just remember these key messages from Game of Thrones:

  • Keep cool in heated moments
  • Loyalty pays off
  • The best networkers survive all changes of power
  • A stint abroad can do wonders for your career

Julie Rowlands is human resources associate for Staples Rodway Taranaki.