October is Office Politics Awaremess Month. Here's a guest post from my smart husband, Steve Peha, and our good friend Amr Elssamadisy, on how to handle office politics.

Crawling Out From Under the Rock of Office Politics

Anyone who has ever worked in an office knows about office politics. It’s hard to define with exact words. But we know it’s there and we know it’s bad. Sometimes, it’s so bad, it’s scary—like a huge rock with gruesome little creatures squirming around underneath it. Tip up that rock just a little and you’ll find people doing things like the following:

  • Starting and spreading gossip.
  • Blaming others to protect themselves, or even worse, to advance themselves.
  • Taking credit for things they don’t deserve.
  • Working against other people or other teams to the detriment of their organizations.
  • Forcing people they have power over to do things that aren’t right, that aren’t ethical, and that sometimes aren’t even legal.
  • Tanking other people’s ideas solely for the purpose of advancing their own.
  • Deliberately withholding information other people need to know in order gain advantage.

Oh yeah, we almost forgot:

  • Just flat out lying to people.

These are more than just unpleasantries; they’re hindrances to workplace performance because they erode trust and create high-friction relationships characterized by conflict and inefficiency. So what do we do about office politics?

Let’s start by being honest: we’ve all been a part of this problem at one time or another. And that’s a strange thing, isn’t it? No one we know comes in to work each day and says, “I’m gonna whip up some really bad office politics today!” And yet, office politics seems to be with us in every office.

To us, that’s an indication that office politics is part of workplace culture. This means that dealing with it involves changing the culture of our workplaces. That’s hard. It’s so hard, in fact, that most of us find it easier to stay under that huge rock with all the gruesome little creatures no matter how gruesome things get for us.

Seeing the Light of Agreements

If office politics is part of workplace culture, then it likely results from workplace norms: patterns of behavior that have gone on for so long that they have become “the way we do things around here.” But if we view office politics as simply a set of undesirable behaviors we’ve just gotten used to tolerating, we can decide not to tolerate them anymore, too.

Now, before you go on a firing spree, we want to say two things:

  1. If you treat office politics like a people problem, you’re gonna go on a firing spree or at least wish you had.
  2. If you treat office politics as a set of behavioral issues, you have a chance to change behaviors without going on a firing spree.

If you identify even just one or two common office politics behaviors, you have the opportunity to form agreements with others not to persist in them.

Simple Agreements, Simple Solutions

Everything we do with other people, we do by agreement. Most of our agreements are not explicit. They’re just things we do together. Coming into the office around 9AM is a norm of sorts in many workplaces but it’s not often an explicit agreement between all parties. Having a daily status meeting at 10AM is clearly an explicit agreement to do so.

So if we can make explicit agreements to show up for daily status meetings—and people actually show up for them—can’t we also make agreements about behaviors related to office politics?

Let’s take the common problem of blame. Again, we all do it. It’s a hard habit to break. But it is a habit. And it can just as easily be broken or replaced with a different, more constructive behavior. What will help is if we’re all working toward this goal together. That’s where agreements come in.

So if fault-finding, blame-laying, and under-the-bus-throwing are a part of your workplace culture—even just a tiny part—why not make an agreement not to do that: “We agree not to blame others when things go wrong.”

An agreement around gossip might be even simpler: “We agree not to gossip.”

Of course, agreements will be broken. But confronting a broken agreement, especially one that we all agree to and that we’re likely all to break at one time or another, feels much more like a friendly reminder than a finger-wagging rebuke.

This is one reason why agreement is a great mechanism for culture change: it focuses our energy on behaviors instead of people. Put another way: working with agreements allows us to treat problems as situational (inherent to a particular situation) as opposed to dispositional (inherent to the disposition or character of the people involved).

The Path of “No” Versus the Path of “Yes”

It’s better to state agreements in positive language when we can rather than in negative language. For example, the negative agreement: “We agree not to gossip.” might be restated positively as “We agree to keep to ourselves information that might be hurtful to others.” Instead of “We agree not to blame others when things go wrong.” we might try something like “We agree to take ownership of situations when things go wrong.”

The Path of “Yes”, or the walk of positive talk, is likely to be more successful because it defines precisely the behavior you’re looking for. Agreements stated in negative terms are often unclear by default because they only define what we don’t want to do, not what we do want to do.

The Harsh Light of Reality

If you and your co-workers have been buried under the rock of office politics for a long time, stepping out into the light, even to keep one simple agreement, may be a little shocking. For one thing, now that light has been shed on the subject, you’ll probably see it more clearly—and more often. That may lead you to call it out frequently and thereby ratchet up the politics of blame. (Which is why having the ownership agreement in place is often a really good one.)

A better approach, at least until your eyes adjust to this brave new world, is to restate and reinforce the positive behaviors you can now see, too. We humans are, by nature, political animals. We all make mistakes and we all struggle to shake bad habits. So approach new agreements made, kept, and even broken with compassion for yourself and others. If you practice compassion in the pursuit of rooting out office politics, compassion may eventually become a part of your workplace culture—and squeeze out by its very nature many of the negative political behaviors that are holding your holding organization back.

Amr Ellsamadisy is a veteran software engineer and a prominent Agile transformation coach for organizations large and small around the world. He is particularly interested in the effects of workplace culture on organizational productivity and techniques for creating high-performing teams. He was a founder of Gemba Systems and a Principal Consultant for ThoughtWorks. He is also the author of “Agile Adoption Patterns: A Roadmap for Organizational Success” published by Addison-Wesley in 2008. He is the co-creator, along with Steve Peha, of “The Culture Engine”, an approach to workplace culture change designed to enhance organizational performance and personal satisfaction, recently unveiled in a presentation at the Agile 2013 conference.

Steve Peha is a learning strategist with 25 years of experience in software development and instructional science. Recently, he served as a Product Owner on the Gates Foundation's Shared Learning Infrastructure, an enterprise Agile implementation of a reference platform for Student Longitudinal Data Systems. In 1995, he founded Teaching That Makes Sense, and education consultancy focused on literacy and school leadership. He is the co-creator, with Amr Elssamadisy, of "The Culture Engine".