A Campbell’s Soup CEO on Office Politics
Office politicians make themselves look good while making others look bad.
“Create environments where people believe they will be honored,” Doug Conant.
I recall a meeting where an office politician made a member of the team look incompetent. They subtly pointed out a Director’s mistake – who wasn’t present – while demonstrating their own competence.
Three things office politicians do:
- They lie so you’ll let down your guard. They tell you everything is great while telling others about your failures.
- They elevate the value of their contribution while devaluing yours.
- They create tension between others. I remember being asked if I wanted my boss’s job while my boss was told I wanted her job.
When Doug Conant, former CEO of Campbell’s Soup asked, “How can I help?” I responded, “Let’s talk office politics.” He paused, began talking, and quickly found his rhythm.
10 tactics for facing office politics:
- Focus on Performance not politics. Playing politics is a slippery slope. Performance is more manageable.
- Be straight forward. Tell people what you are going to do.
- Tell others you delivered. Performance alone is not enough.
- Don’t participate in water-cooler conversations. Always talk about others as if they were in the room.
- Leaders may intervene but the best way to deal with office politics is by example, don’t participate.
- The danger of not participating is you are outside it.
- When it gets personal, leaders can have behind-closed-door conversations with offenders that refocus everyone on performance.
- Create environments where people believe they will be honored. Expect people to value the organizations agenda while the organization values theirs.
- Defeat office politics with honoring and performing.
- Understand it takes time to transform a highly political environment.
Doug explained he’d been in tough environments and that his first four strategies usually worked for him.
Which of Doug’s 10 observations do you find most useful?
Can you add an observation of your own?
Related post: How to Toot Your Own Horn
Check out Doug’s new book TouchPoints.
Good morning Dan,
I’d like to echo the point about not taking part in the water-cooler conversations. It took a few false starts and a couple times getting burned, but I finally settled on a way to handle that. I now tell people, “I don’t like talking about people who aren’t here, but I’d be happy to go with you to talk to that person.” So far, no one has ever taken me up on the offer. Now, most don’t even start. As you warn, though, the down side is, for a while at least, you’re on the outside as others share information (gossip?). In the end, though, they’ll be back, because they need your integrity. Politicians always need the company of at least a few straight shooters, so they can pretend they are too.
On one occasion I fired one of my better-performing employees for undermining others. I told him, and the group later, that his good performance didn’t have enough value to offset the way others performed worse with him around.
Thanks for sharing your experiences and for having the courage to supporting integrity in your work environment.
When you deal with offenders those who follow their example will stop and begin towing the line.
Encouraged by your comment,
Great points. We’d note that Gallup has tracked the engagement levels of the U.S. working population for the past decade. Its most recent employee engagement research shows that 28% of American workers are engaged;54% are not engaged; and 18% are actively disengaged.So at any one time 18% of people in your office wish to be someplace else, doing something else.
More than how to deal individual to individual with the those who are causing issues in the office, we feel the issue starts higher up-stream with leadership and corporate culture.
If you are a leader, we invite you to examine: “Am I actively building a team-based company culture – a workplace in which people want to be here? If not, what do I consider more important to do than that? Why would I NOT want to devote attention to cultivating a place where those who devote their life energy to this team, initiative or company can be happy and fulfilled at work?”
I invite real answers to this question. I invite you to ask yourself and those around you “Why ARE we so discontent at work” and “What can WE do about it?”
For many, it’s a luxury to consider whether we are happy or content at work – or anywhere. (There are still many on this planet whose sole daily concern is survival). And there will always be discontent in the world. But nevertheless … Joy and happiness are our birthright as human beings. Given that, as a leader, we must focus not only on profits, but through our role as leaders, honor the efforts of the 28% who are engaged and working hard to make a difference while being happy in what they are doing.
I feel the passion in your comment and thanks for the stats.
I’m sure we agree that one reason so many are disengaged is they see the wrong people being honored or rewarded.
I believe this is your first comment. I look forward to future comments.
Dan – while I enjoyed reading the “how to face office politics” and agree that they are great points, what advice would you to give to someone who is a “victim” of office politics and is not in a position to influence the office environment ? All the points seem doable if one is a manager/leader – what do you do if your career is impacted due to someone else’s politics ?
I agree with SM, what do you do when you are low enough to be seriously impacted by the politics? I try to take the high road every day, but what do you do when the management ignores the worst offenders but allows them to impact your reputation? I’ve recently received a minor management role, which means I now have two sets of coworkers out for my blood. What should be my next move?
Just a quick note, Chelsea. I don’t have a slick answer, just an observation. Management definitely feeds or hinders office politics. It never goes away but it can be minimized. Weak leaders and leaders who play politics themselves tolerate and aggravate office politics. Without the support of upper management, a clear plan is important. I sent you an email. Let me know if you’d like to explore this offline. Cheers, Dan
I believe that Doug’s comments are all valid. My favorites are #8 & #9. Combined they equal leadership paying attention. When leadership is all consumed with their own political gain then everyone else below them has to play the political game too to survive. There are very few leaders that notice what their employees are really up to. They are so busy maneuvering the chess pieces within their own peer group that they have no idea the ship is sinking underneath them. There are only a couple in a hundred executive C-level leaders that really have zero toleration for their leadership team engaging in politics. That’s why we are in so much trouble with innovation in this country. Most leadership at all levels are not engaged really in the business – but instead in their own personal career with strategy of politics.
Kristi, I think the issue you’ve identified with senior managers is very real, perhaps more so in publicly-traded companies where managing for appearance and short-term impact on the bottom line is always a temptation. I’m very interested in the link you make between that problem and the struggle we seem to have with innovation. That wasn’t intuitive to me, but as I think about it I think you’re right in connecting them.
I am concerned that we immediately label “politics” in a very negative light, as if it’s only potential outcome is a destructive one.
Politics itself, and the use of politics to achieve outcomes, is not inherently negative, but just another tool in the kit to influence others around you to align behind a vision.
It is enlightening to read Plato’s view of the role of politics and politicians, as espoused in his “Republic”. This gives a very different view of what politics is all about.
Unfortunately, as this article shows, we all too often resort to exploiting politics as a way to generate some kind of personal gain at the expense of others. This is, however, a matter of personal integrity, not a direct outcome of the process employed (i.e. politics).
To ignore office politics because of the potential harm is naive, and ignores the potential benefits that can be gained through use of this tool. But to ignore our personal integrity in how we choose to employ any tool available to us is even worse.
Jon, if you define politics as the negotiation of give-and-take among equals, then I agree that there is a normal and beneficial use of politics in the office. The connotation of the term has grown to be a lot more negative than that, unfortunately. As in public life, a lot of good could probably be done by honorable men and women with the insight and patience to piece together support in that way.
Jon, thanks for offering a different view. My experience is that “politics” as evolved into more negative than positive, but there can be value. My observation is that people interested in office politics are often interested in how they look better without being better. This is not helpful in serving clients and serving the needs of the organization.
Thanks for bringing a positive light to office politics. You are I believe the exception. In my experience, when you say “office politics” most take it negatively. Hence, your comment. Best, Dan
#1, focus on performance. It is measurable! Thanks for a great post.
My least favorite topic. Not because it isn’t a good topic, but because office politics are often such a waste of energy, sapping the energy of those who are engaged. My experience is that the more politics, the more the culture will be less engaged in meaningful work.
When I ran a company our first rule was: do the right things for the right reasons. How does what we are deciding serve the client? How does it serve the company? How does it serve those working here? When we filtered our behavior through these questions some of the “nonsense” seem to go away. We had better focus and got more done.
The instability that highly political environments creates is a morale buster and a productivity bottle neck. People spend more time posturing than producing.
We’re on the same page Jim.
Isn’t politics just what happens when people attempt to use influence to build enough collective power for something to take place? Maybe there’s the start of an answer somewhere in the question of why people don’t feel empowered in the first place. That would suggest that other leadership dynamics maybe provide a fertile place for politics to flourish.
Very interesting Greg. If politics is used to achieve publicly known goals – not secret ones. And, if politics is used to achieve organizational objectives, I’m on your team.
I think the idea that an empowered work place might have less negative politics is very useful and reflects on upper level leaders. There example is paramount when it comes to this topic.
Dan, great post. We need to differentiate real constructive relationship building from destructive politics. Some of the stuff described here qualify for gossiping- the lowest form of inter-company engagement.
Eventually every successful and ambitious employee will one way or another have to involve with company politics whether they like it or not because success builds power which invites political capital. The point is to put his power at good and productive use. My pick from your list is therefore 1, 3 and 8 which essentially focuses on performance, announces it and lobbies for it and honors those who help to deliver that performance- all are positive and constructive. And IMHO, anyone who spreads a negative message in a negative way should be shown the way out.