Strategies for Curbing Organizational Politics
By Tracey G. Gove, M.P.A.
Undoubtedly, police work involves danger. While law enforcement officers are highly trained and well equipped to meet the challenges they face on the street, a hidden danger lies within the police organization itself. Though this danger may remain largely unseen and ignored, it deeply entrenches itself within the agency’s culture and daily operations. This foe, which lurks below the surface of most workplaces, is a complex and sinister web known as “office politics.” Left unabated, such political games destroy employee morale and sap an agency’s time and resources. Fortunately, law enforcement officers and supervisors can take steps to minimize these negative effects.
Office politics often are easier to recognize than to describe. The general term politics simply describes a competition for power, but office politics involves those who seek power at the expense of others, with an “I win, you lose” attitude. Office politics are behaviors that maximize self-interest and conflict with the collective goals and interests of others.1
These divisive behaviors take many forms. At its worst, office politics manifest as outright manipulation and sabotage for the sake of one’s own upward mobility, power, or success. These tactics function as a means to win the regard of superiors or key decision makers, both in and outside of the agency. Instead of honest, professionally built relationships, office politicians build relationships through deceit and chicanery.
More often, though, workplace politics take the more subtle forms of malicious gossip, rumors, or criticism through which the office politician controls the flow of information. For example, office politicians may spread nuggets of bad information that discredit and ruin the reputation of a coworker, or they might exploit the weaknesses of others to make them appear less competent. With these tactics, office politicians aim to undermine coworkers whom they perceive as threats to success.
Employees play political games regardless of their education, intelligence, or position of authority. Intelligent, confident people who will do anything to climb the promotional ladder often adopt such tactics; or, those who perceive themselves as less competent may resort to political games to compensate for their shortcomings.
Law enforcement agencies are especially susceptible to the influence of internal political games. As highly structured organizations, agencies’ strict hierarchy of titles and ranks allows employees at all levels to exercise authority. These factors, coupled with the competitive, type-A personalities of many law enforcement professionals, inevitably create a highly charged political environment.
Detective Lieutenant Gove of the West Hartford, Connecticut, Police Department is an adjunct faculty member at Manchester Community College in Connecticut.
Strategies for Officers
In law enforcement organizations, internal politics often affect officers more than anyone else. While the political games of peers and immediate supervisors impact officers directly, the byproducts of upper-echelon political drama may trickle down to the agency’s lower levels as well. Strategies exist that can help officers avoid becoming personally entangled in the political web.
Long hours at work with little activity often lead officers to share many personal thoughts and ideas. Officers should remember that a coworker can and likely will repeat whatever they say, so they should not reveal anything sensitive. Also, officers should not repeat anything that a coworker tells them in confidence as this can and surely will cause negative repercussions in the future.
When officers strive for a special assignment, promotion, or just a successful, enjoyable career, they must rely on personal merit alone. To reach their professional goals, officers need not resort to politicking; instead, they should improve themselves professionally through higher education, specialized training, and simple hard work. If officers set goals and couple them with appropriate strategies, they always will outperform those who rely on political maneuvers. Additionally, if officers dedicate their time toward their professional development, they will have less time to worry about the ambitions of others.2
Officers should not rationalize, either internally or externally, any negative behaviors that they exhibit in pursuit of their goals. Officers might think “everyone does it” or “they did not deserve that promotion,” but these are only weak attempts to justify improper and even unconscionable behavior.3 Humans can rationalize just about anything, but, in the end, political games most likely will hurt only the player’s career.
Officers need to develop emotional and social intelligence by building healthy relationships at all levels within their organization. This opens lines of communication and prevents misunderstandings about the behaviors and actions of others. Similarly, officers should pay proper courtesy and respect to all coworkers and not align with cliques or social groups. Networking, while important, need not exclude others.
When officers make personal complaints, they should follow proper procedures and handle them through the appropriate chain of command. Ideally, officers should express their grievances to a spouse or trusted friend outside of the agency. Often, however, fellow law enforcement officers more easily relate to job frustrations because they understand the unique characteristics of police work. If officers confide in a fellow law enforcement professional, they should carefully choose a select few confidants whom they trust to keep their concerns in confidence. If not, unchecked venting in the workplace causes long-term complications when grievances are repeated.
Approaches for Supervisory Personnel
Because of their managerial position, supervisors play a pivotal role in curbing workplace politics; unfortunately, supervisors may exacerbate the problem if they engage in political behavior themselves. Supervisors can take steps to minimize political maneuvering in their offices.
- They should keep an eye out for political behavior not only in others but also in themselves. Supervisors are only human and, thus, may feel tempted to play the political game when they might benefit personally. Such behavior, however, will destroy trust and weaken employee performance.4 Unfortunately, a political web often is so subtle and complex that it can ensnare supervisors before they ever realize it exists.5 To escape this trap, supervisors should keep their antenna tuned to both the internal workings of their agency and their own behavior.
- Supervisors should pay attention to the informal leaders and power players among their subordinates. Officers become leaders not just through formal promotion; certain frontline officers attract and keep a loyal following of peers. If the formal hierarchy acts as the skeleton of an organization, these informal networks function as the central nervous system.6 If supervisors want to successfully navigate this political environment, they must keep abreast of the informal power networks that build it. Supervisors can gain insight to this complex web of relationships if they observe and study the workplace interactions of their coworkers.7
- Upper-level administrators should ensure that their agencies maintain a zero-tolerance policy that clearly prohibits unnecessary criticism and disparaging comments, as well as malicious gossip, rumors, and other disinformation. Agencies must not only maintain a written policy but also strictly enforce it at all levels in the agency. Supervisors should not gossip or talk about coworkers behind their backs, especially in front of subordinates.
- Supervisors should examine how they measure success among their subordinates to ensure that their standards do not reward political behavior. If supervisors bestow promotions and plumb assignments based on personal relationships or favor, then they encourage a highly political environment. Promotions and desirable assignments only should go to workers who possess a relevant track record of success and the requisite skills for the new position.8
- Similarly, upper-level administrators should analyze their agency’s rewards and recognition process. To ensure fairness and supplant hidden agendas, supervisors should apply objective standards toward their recognition criteria. Law enforcement organizations must design their recognition process so that supervisors only reward their employees based on objective criteria rather than as a personal favor.
- Instead of involving themselves in the political arena, supervisors should develop their managerial skills and encourage open and transparent communication from their subordinates. Effective communication eliminates the deadly grapevine and rumor mill; otherwise, communication voids will be filled with any available information regardless of its accuracy. Poor communication, even unintentional, facilitates a destructive political culture.9
- Supervisors must coach, mentor, and set goals with their subordinates. A manager’s day-to-day duties include more than extinguishing “fires” that erupt; they also should work closely with personnel on their professional development. This type of leadership lessens the risk of employees resorting to deceptive practices to accelerate their careers.
All of these proposed strategies to counter office politics are mostly informal approaches. At times, however, organizational politicking rises to a level that requires more formal action (e.g., if an employee violates a zero-tolerance policy). In these instances, supervisors should discipline employees according to their organization’s standards, and officers should report misbehavior through the official complaint process. Additionally, both supervisors and officers should consider using their union, human resources department, or state labor board; each mediates a variety of disputes, complaints, and discrimination issues.
Law enforcement organizations must certify that their culture, policies, and operations discourage an excessively political environment—a task, no doubt easier said than done. Agency leaders should remember that above all, employees want their organizations to operate fairly. Objective standards for assignments and promotions, transparent communication, and opportunities for professional development all foster an environment where political maneuvers do not replace hard work, honesty, and accomplishment. Law enforcement officers already have inherently dangerous jobs, and an agency’s internal politics need not cause officers more stress than the conditions on the street.