Office Politics: One thing competitors hope you do well!

People should be fired for blatantly or surreptitiously contributing to office politics!

Office politics saps huge amounts of productivity. It kills passion and contributes to poor quality, service, cost, innovation and speed. There’s no justification for keeping anyone around—no matter where they are in the hierarchy—who plays a role in it.

I encountered a senior human resources leader who was obsessed with control. He claimed that he “owned” anything in the company that was people-related. He resisted efforts by his peers or others to survey employees, improve communication with them, or improve their performance in the line operations. People, including his boss, laughed at him behind his back.

But laughing at him was tantamount to sanctioning the HR leader’s behavior and the destruction it was causing. Sanctioning the behavior encouraged others to get into the game, which of course created more damage by more players.

Part of the problem is this “own” thing. A few years ago, people in business had responsibility for creating results. They were held accountable for outcomes and sometimes the processes that created the outcomes.

Then “owning” the process became de rigueur. As in, “Sally owns safety.” Which, of course, is bunk because Sally doesn’t own safety in your organization or any other organization. Everyone is responsible for keeping everyone else safe.

When people think they “own” processes, departments, functions or disciplines, invisible walls are often erected around those entities. Walls contribute nothing to integration, innovation or the collaboration that’s needed to improve performance.

People should focus on “owning” results. When people erect barriers around their work, they’re often doing so to protect turf, which was the HR leader’s problem. This kind of office politics hurts customers and shareholders. 


How We Did It

(Leadership Report readers often ask us to explain how we create some of the results we talk about. So, starting with this issue, we’ll explain “how we did it,” with a distribution company whose quality and productivity we helped improve.)

Connect the Say and the Do

Our client invited us to reduce damaged caused inside its 600,000 square-foot Indianapolis, Indiana-based distribution center. But, the leaders warned, our effort could not negatively affect productivity in our quest to improve quality. We had a deal.

If someone plays this game, warn them that it won’t be tolerated. If they do it again, show them the door. It will improve performance and communicate what you value. Doing this once can have long-term implications.

The company’s senior director of corporate communication, with whom I was partnering on this project, provided the background performance information to review prior to our first meeting with the site leadership.

The data told us that the site enjoyed an excellent reputation within the company. It was known for its high quality, productivity and its always near perfect safety record. But while productivity was increasing, quality was declining. Too many damaged products were being shipped out of the warehouse or needed to be re-worked before shipping.

One of the first questions we asked the leadership during our initial meeting with them centered on their goals. What were they held accountable to meet? This is a critical starting point in any performance improvement effort because, I believe, “what counts is what you count.” Measurement, in the form of goals and rewards, powerfully communicates what is important and what people need to do to win.

This question about accountability and the leaders’ answers provided our first clue about the potential causes of the damage problem. Eighty percent of the performance rating for leaders, including supervisors, was on productivity. Safety and quality were weighted at 10 percent each. Effectively, the goal-setting and reward systems were communicating that productivity was king, but if possible, we’d like you to worry about quality and safety as well.

Focus groups with employees corroborated our damage hypothesis—that the say and do communication was out of sync. We “say” quality is important but we “do” productivity.

“We hear the quality message,” employees said, but as one employee told us, “we hire people off the street as forklift drivers who’ve never run a forklift, then give them almost no training before turning them loose on the warehouse floor.”

“They say quality is important, but supervisors tell us to ship damage and all the numbers on the walls are about productivity, another said.”

And on and on.

Employees told us they could reduce damage by one-half if they had the right resources.

With a huge dose of employee involvement, we worked with the leadership to carefully align the entire organization to the safety, quality and productivity goals. All three received equal attention. We aligned leadership expectations and accountability to the goals. We aligned measurement, scoreboards and pre-shift meetings, recruiting, orientation, training, business literacy development and work processes to the three goals. When we referred to one goal (e.g., productivity), we always referred to the other two (e.g., safety and quality).

After five months, the organization was aligned to deliver improved results. In that brief time:
• Accidents remained at zero
• Damage was reduced by 65 percent
• Productivity increased 16 per cent

The site became a model for other company sites. Facility leaders from other operations visited Indianapolis and participated in a training program to learn how the successes were created. They returned to their own facilities, set new goals and borrowed work that had been performed in Indy so they could hit those goals.

Floppy Rubber Chickens? (Whatever works)

David Novak, CEO of Yum Brands (Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, KFC and Long John Silver’s), believes “Using recognition is the best way to build a high-energy, fun culture and reinforce the behaviors that drive results,” he says. Thomas Watson, IBM’s founder, handed people bananas from his top desk drawer and open book management pioneer Jack Stack hands out yellow balloons honoring people at the company’s huddles.

Recognition needs to be deserved, Novak says.”And it needs to come from the heart. For the people who are getting it done, it can’t be done too much. Why be selfish on the thing that matters most to people?” he says.

But Novak adds a twist. He gives out floppy rubber chickens as forms of recognition, just as

Recognition and feedback go hand in hand and Novak has tips on feedback as well. He starts with, “This is what I appreciate about you.”

“They might have great strategy, or good vision, they’re good at execution or whatever you think they’re doing really well,” Novak says. “That makes them very receptive for feedback because at least you’re giving them credit for what they’ve done. Then I say, ‘And you can be even more effective if you do this.’ AND really recognizes the appreciation part. If you say, ‘but,’ it throws all the appreciation stuff out the window.”

Recognize five people today for what they’ve done lately to make your team better. Go on—five. You can do it.


–Jim Shaffer

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