Relationships And The Stress Of Office Politics

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by Andre van Heerdon, Columnist & Featured Contributor

WHAT’S THE BIGGEST CAUSE OF STRESS AT WORK?  I have done a lot of surveys over the years, and in every one of them the most common answer has been ‘other people’.  That is why we enjoy sitcoms like ‘The Office” – we can all so easily relate to the situations and the characters.  We love to cringe and squirm at the experiences of Ricky Gervais and the gang because they resonate with our own.

It’s the same with Dilbert – we laugh because we’ve seen it all before. And of course, shows like Boston Legal cash in on the ease with which we relate to the seemingly larger-than-life characters. But the characters aren’t necessarily the exaggerated caricatures we sometimes suppose – I have hundreds of outrageous stories about behaviour every bit as bizarre as we see in the movies and on television.

There was an art director at an agency in South Africa who once crawled under the boardroom table at a client meeting and bit one of our guests on the leg. He said if they were going to treat him like a dog, he would behave like one. Sadly, most of my stories are not so funny – they’re mostly about unhappy people, and people struggling with stress and personal problems.

Feelings are bodily events – they just happen; but we can freely choose our attitudes. We are the only animals with the free will that enables us to choose to ignore our feelings or go against them. Moreover, we have the intellect to help us make rational judgments about the right attitudes and the right behaviour.

office politicsThe reality in the workplace today is mostly one of strained relationships, and people often put it down to office politics. Unfortunately, politics has been given a bad name all over the world by politicians. Every organization I know pretends that they aren’t political, trying to prove it by replacing the word with euphemisms like networking, partnering, lobbying, and influencing.

But as Aristotle pointed out long ago that human beings are political animals – if we weren’t political, we wouldn’t be human.

So what is politics? The dictionary tells us it’s the science and art of government, but most people would define it as faction and one-upmanship, manipulation and exploitation, lying, cheating, and using others as means to your own ends, or simply the exercise of power. But none of those things are politics – they are simply what they say they are – instances of human beings hurting and using other human beings.
Politics is something else altogether, unique to humans.

Politics is possible in human society because we have the ability to transcend our animal instincts and build communities on the principle of justice, which by definition, is a moral concept. Without morality, there can be no politics, just barbarism.

Politics is nothing more than how we order our lives together in justice. And justice is either for everybody or for nobody.

Teddy Roosevelt words: “This country won’t be a good place for any of us unless it’s a good place for all of us” apply to all businesses, families, communities, and countries.

So if politics is essentially about how we order our lives together, then it’s about our relationships, one-on-one, in groups, and community.

The easiest way to discover the guidelines for good relationships is to ask “What qualities do you admire in other people?” because then we quickly learn what we expect from one another. The most common responses I have received in workshops over the years have been respect, honesty, confidence, wisdom, courage, self-control, fairness, creativity, integrity, and aspiration.

These are the qualities that help people build positive relationships, and therefore they are the qualities each of us needs to try and cultivate in our own lives. The value of these qualities is easily confirmed if we contrast them with their opposites: contempt, dishonesty, cynicism, foolishness, cowardice, self-indulgence, unfairness, narrow-mindedness, inconsistency, and complacency. These are quite obviously the qualities that undermine relationships.

Significantly, all the work I have done with leaders and teams in most categories of business, the public service, and the professions, has revealed again and again that there are just three main factors that make the building of effective teams impossible. Those factors are cynicism, complacency, and contempt. As long as people cling to those mindsets, there is little chance of any group functioning as a team.

Conversely, the starting point for building an effective team is to inspire and nurture the opposites of those three factors – confidence, aspiration, and respect – in the people required to work as a unit.

Notice that all of the qualities identified are attitudes.

But what can we do about attitudes, for heaven’s sakes?

Though we use the terms frequently every day, most people often confuse attitudes with emotions – they are, in fact, very different things, affecting one another to be sure, but distinct mental states nonetheless.

An emotion is, in the words of Mortimer Adler: “…a passion that the body suffers and we consciously experience when a complex set of bodily reactions occurs: changes in respiration and pulse, changes in epidermal electricity, increases of blood sugar and adrenalin in the blood due to reaction on the part of the glands of internal secretion, papillary dilation or contraction. In short, an emotion is a widespread, violent bodily commotion that is consciously experienced and accompanied by strong impulses to act in a certain way.” Examples of emotions would be fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, enjoyment, exhilaration, disgust, and shame.

An attitude, by contrast, is a self-chosen mind-set about how we stand in relation to other people, to the world around us, and to ourselves. It is an act of will that shapes our behaviour towards others and ourselves. Feelings are bodily events – they just happen; but we can freely choose our attitudes. We are the only animals with the free will that enables us to ignore our feelings or go against them. Moreover, we have the intellect to help us make rational judgments about the right attitudes and the right behaviour.

What then are good or positive attitudes, and what are bad or negative attitudes? Quite simply, good attitudes promote well-being, while bad attitudes cause harm – in ourselves, others, and the world around us.

This can be easily tested by listing the attitudes that help build relationships, and we quickly discover that they simply follow on from the list of qualities people admire in others. Caring, hard-working, adventurous, curious, cooperative, generous, and persevering, are just some of the attitudes that fit neatly into the earlier list. And they are all qualities encouraged by the experts on emotional intelligence.

By contrast, bad attitudes are exposed as extensions of the list of qualities that break down relationships.

Selfish, lazy, complacent, credulous, uncooperative, greedy, and submissive, all fit logically into the list of qualities people dislike in others, qualities that make living together difficult.

The empowering reality is that we really are in control of our own destiny. Epictetus and many other great philosophers have told us that our happiness depends on the choices we make, and that our well-being ultimately depends on our well-doing. That means we are in a position to change our lives for the better by ordering our attitudes according to what are, after all, pretty clear guidelines.

Of course, we can only change our own attitudes. The very worst thing to do in the case of another person is to bluntly tell them they have a bad attitude. Far better to influence them positively by acting as a role model through our own positive attitudes. This is, of course never easy, requiring self-control, patience, and compassion, but at least we know, the choice is our own to make.

If the objectives of office politics are teamwork and fulfilment, both personal and corporate, then it is clear that those objectives will only be achieved when the attitudes of the people involved are positively aligned. Human nature being what it is, this means that the best any organisation can work towards is having positive attitudes in the majority of its people.

Corporate culture is always shaped by the leaders, as role models and coaches, nurturing good attitudes.

In the final analysis, it comes back to each individual. What kind of person do you want to be – one who helps order our lives together in justice and compassion, or one who puts self above all other considerations? We live in a world that actively encourages selfish attitudes, and desperately need people who will restore our hope in community. You can make a world of difference. It’s your own character, and therefore your own personal fulfilment in life, that is at stake.


Andre van Heerden
Andre van Heerden
ANDRE heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity, and is the author of three books on leadership, Leaders and Misleaders, An Educational Bridge for Leaders, and Leading Like You Mean It. He has unique qualifications for addressing the leadership crisis. Since studying law at Rhodes University, he has been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an account director on multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator. He has worked in all business categories on blue-chip brands like Toyota, Ford, Jaguar, Canon, American Express, S C Johnson, Kimberley Clark, and John Deere, while leadership coaching has seen him help leaders and aspirant leaders in Real Estate, Retail, the Science Sector, Local Government, Education, Food Safety, Banking, and many other areas.

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