Curate Your Company Culture – How to Build an Apolitical Company Environment

Politics and drama are often seen as unavoidable fixtures in business and corporate life. Is it possible to create a culture that spits out drama and minimizes the politics? I know a lot of accomplished business people who take a Hobbesian view of the world and suggest that people inherently like to complain and gravitate to drama. They’d say that there is nothing you can do about it other than ignore it or join the fray. Some larger companies even encourage politics and see it as an efficient way to get things done.

The other day, a new hire told me that my company has an amazingly apolitical culture. He’d been at a number of companies in the valley and was pleasantly surprised. We have a team of 60 people and I’ve never had to worry much about politics. My company is generally drama free. Everyone comes in, works hard and gets their job done. Our culture isn’t perfect, but people get along and there’s very limited conflict or confrontation. I asked myself what I’ve done to create a constructive, apolitical office culture.

1. Set the Tone as a Leader
Stay calm under pressure and be objective. Don’t yell or lose your cool. As a leader, you’re always going to receive infuriating emails or that nugget of information that drives you crazy. When you do, make sure to slow down, take a walk or sleep on it. It’s important to be thoughtful and measured in your response. And if you need to give someone on your team feedback, do it in private and not in front of their colleagues.

2. Create an Environment of Fairness
Always question if you are being fair when making compensation, promotion or bonus decisions; and always encourage your team to do the same. Assume that in a small company, everyone knows what everyone else makes.  One tip is to envision how you’d justify a comp increase or comp for a new hire to others in the organization? How would they respond? What questions would they have? You’ll likely not have to do this, but it’s a good gut-check. If you can’t or if it’s a stretch, rethink.

3. Root out Drama
Have a zero tolerance policy for drama and take an active role in enforcing it. If two people are not getting along, immediately bring them in. If they aren’t on your team, give the same direction to their manager and actively participate. Don’t wait or procrastinate and don’t feel like you need to be the arbiter or solve their problems. Simply let them know that regardless of who is right or wrong, that type of behavior is unacceptable and not part of your culture. Either it stops or neither will be working there. Emphasize that you expect members of your team to be able to work these issues out themselves. Instead of taking sides, view yourself as curator of the culture you want to create.

4. Avoid Favoritism as a Leader
Make sure to avoid the perception of favoritism by reinforcing that you put performance above all else and that regardless of their position they have a chance to do well with you and with the company. Be clear about performance metrics for both individuals and teams and make them transparent. It’s OK to like those who perform better, but don’t fall into the trap of putting favoritism over performance.

5. Eliminate Whispering
If your team is whispering at their desks or around the water cooler and the conversation stops when you or others appear, you have a problem. Pull whoever is whispering aside and state clearly that whispering is not a part of your culture and makes people feel uncomfortable regardless of the subject. Personal drama should be left at home or discussed outside the office and sensitive work issues should be discussed in a private conference room.

6. Implement a Consistent and Thorough Review Process
For a long time as my company was growing, I conducted formal quarterly reviews for my entire team. We’ve since moved to mid-year and annual reviews, but the review process is a critical factor. It’s extremely important to make cultural fit and contribution a key component. Also, implement a 360 degree format where you get feedback from direct reports, other managers and colleagues. The easiest way to tell someone that they’re being a jerk or are not aligned with your company culture is to say it’s the general consensus and although you agree, you’re there to help.

7. Stay Above the Fray
As a leader, you need to be pristine. Don’t get involved closely in your employees’ personal lives. Don’t date or get romantically involved with anyone on your team as tempting as that might be. Lend an ear if necessary or some words of wisdom, but refrain from being a therapist or providing too much advice to avoid being pulled into personal drama.

8. Walk Around
Don’t spend all day at your desk or in your office. Get up every hour or two. Talk to people. You’ll be surprised about how much you can learn about what’s going on. Watch body language and try to get in front of issues before they occur. If your team knows you’re aware and care, they’ll behave differently.

9. Care
Staying apolitical doesn’t mean you can’t care for your employees. Care about your team and their personal and professional development. Care about your culture. Put in the time to listen. Host events consistently and get to know your team. Let your employees know you care about them.  Make sure to let your leadership flow downward throughout the organization. Your team is family, not a bunch of machines or replaceable parts.

What do you think? How important is minimizing politics in the corporate environment? I’m curious to hear others’ perspectives or experiences dealing with company politics and culture at their companies.

About alexford

Alex Ford is an accomplished entrepreneur, angel investor and executive and the founder of Praetorian Digital.
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