Wasting Team Energy on Office Politics

Published: February 7, 2019

Zero-error is the goal in many industries. Transportation companies have mastered the skills of full disclosure, root cause analysis, and proactive risk reduction to keep people safe in the air on the rails. Healthcare attempts to apply the same principles yet continues to hurt people at surprising frequency in clinics and hospitals. In businesses where the stakes aren’t quite as high, it becomes a matter of efficiency and productivity. You have to know where the source of waste or error is before you can make the world a better place. Often, the greatest misallocation of resources is the energy spent on managing team politics. Team dysfunction takes many forms and depletes the system. Assess and solve every disruption. Below are the symptoms of broken culture and suggestions for corrective actions.

Under-engaged teammates

All teams have a small percentage of under-engaged employees but they should not be running the show. Be clear about the team’s values and hold everyone equally accountable to the behaviors that strengthen that mission.

Unhealthy workplace norms

Tolerating disrespect or lack of appreciation for diversity is the same as sanctioning it. Track the way teammates treat each other and fix broken interactions in real time with ownership and conflict resolution.

Broken trust

Trust is the end product of respect, connection, and accountability. If the workplace lacks psychological safety, address these three priorities first. Chip away at unresolved issues so they don’t grow insidiously and haunt the workplace when old wounds get reopened.

Normalized lack of accountability

Cutting corners and missing deadlines are variations of theft. It’s easy to find ways to scam the system if your goal is to take more than you give. Generous employees understand that their investment creates goodwill on the team. Like compounding interest, giving more results in receiving more.

Fear of innovation

The status quo is more comfortable than the unknown future. Innovating creates tension which is natural to fear. The movement from tension to resolution, however, is energizing and fulfilling. Willingness to struggle is the currency of growth. New skills only develop when we are in circumstances that require them.

Unhealed wounds

Trauma is paralyzing. Grudges keep people stuck. The normal emotion is depletion when a significant change occurs on a team. There is a reasonable amount of time that should be devoted to healing and refueling after a shock. Eventually, the team needs to put one foot in front of the other and move forward to whatever the new normal is going to be. Repairing damage is the first task followed by reinvestment in new realities however unexpected they may have been.

Any time consumed navigating workplace dysfunction steals from the mission of the organization. Beyond morale problems, distracted employees make mistakes. In addition to turnover costs, departing employees badmouth their former peers and cause reputation damage. Besides spreading toxicity, disgruntled employees infect their teammates with the contagiousness of negativity. It’s a slippery slope. Rather than allowing a negative spiral to gain momentum, put the team in problem-solving mode. Identify the pain, design a solution, and return the employees’ energy to the team’s mission.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst University where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.