office politics, political, being a leader, how to be a leader, making your employees leaders Illustration: Greetings from NH Primary Illustration: Greetings from NH Primary Illustration: Greetings from NH Primary Illustration: Greetings from NH Primary
Small Business

Managing Your Business

As New Hampshire Votes, it's Time to Address Office Politics

This article originally appeared on Vox.com.

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The first-in-the-nation New Hampshire presidential primary, despite its backbiting and mud-slinging — or perhaps because of it — has a clarifying effect on the way we think about leadership. As a country, we go through this recalibration every four years, but for business owners, political gamesmanship occurs more frequently. In fact, for them, nothing has a more profound day-to-day effect than politics with a small "p" — office politics.

From poor communication among departments to hurt employee morale, office politics can play a toxic role in the life of a business. But Idowu Koyenikan, principal consultant at Grandeur Touch, says a strong leader can sometimes turn that tension into an opportunity by addressing the issues directly and asking employees to focus on resolving the underlying problems.

Scott Love, an expert on influence and workplace issues, and author of Why They Follow: How to Lead with Positive Influence, says leadership begins with one crucial quality. While speaking recently to a group of municipal executives, he asked them to think of one person who most embodied qualities of leadership. "I asked them to list three of that person's characteristics, and to begin with the most important quality first," he says. "Overwhelmingly, the answers started with the word 'trustworthy' or one similar to it."

To gain this trust, Love says, a leader puts the needs and desires of others above his own. Without trust, he says, motivational techniques or management tactics will be rendered moot.

Turning Tension Into Motivation

Joni Holderman, owner of Thrive! Resumes, agrees. Years ago, when she was managing a tiny restaurant, there was a collaboration breakdown between the service staff and cooks. "What worked for me was gamifying with an employee contest and creating two teams, each with goals and a system of rewards. Servers and cooks were on the same team, which encouraged them to see each other as allies rather than enemies."

Holderman says she posted results and updated them at least once per day, and publicly recognized the day's winners. Soon, when a customer complimented a server, the cooks on that team cheered. When a customer complimented the food, the servers on that cook's team applauded. "Cooperation among team members went through the roof," she says, adding that traditional employee contests too often pit employees with the same job title against each other. "Or, they may pit the customer service team against the sales or accounting team. Even in a small business, that reinforces vertical silos rather than bridging them."

By aligning the teams' own motivations with the collective business goal, Scott Love says a manager or owner can get buy-in for a project. "But a business owner, instead of issuing a directive, should ask questions," he says. "Tell employees the goal, and ask them what steps they might take to achieve that goal. If you direct them, you are a boss. But if you let them tell you what they will do to achieve the goal, then you are a leader."

Love's thesis, which he calls Emotional Equity, says that an employee who tells an owner how a goal can be achieved will own the outcome. "This is the only thing you really want to foster among your team, a sense of ownership," he says.

Empowering Employees

With employees feeling a sense of ownership of outcomes, says Sean Higgins, co-founder of Ilos, a screen recording app, business owners must do a frequent "gut check" to make sure this culture permeates from top to bottom. "In order for your organization to be successful, you need every single person to feel like they can pull the cord and stop the assembly line," he says. "We had a new hire who was too afraid to report a bug to a developer. He didn't want the developer to get angry. Any time a breakdown like this happens the only person to blame is you, the manager. You need to create an open culture."

Of course, the flip side of an "open culture" can lead to "open office politics," where an employee might overstep boundaries. But even then, it takes leadership and vision to be able to identify opportunities. Koyenikan says an effective leader has the ability to shift perspective, "to see situations that arise in different ways."

"A leader knows that what they focus on is what grows," Koyenikan says. "If you focus on the pain then you are bound to see more of it. It is only when you look past the pain that you are able to see the opportunities buried within it."

Looking to foster leadership in your own business? Here are some tips.

Articulate your values, vision, and mission. Leaders are able to ask key questions, says Scott Love: What is the ultimate vision of what the team can become? What is its day-to-day purpose? What are the values that matter most?

Create a candid culture. Effective leaders are candid with their team members and let them know what's at stake. "When people understand the amount of trust they've been given, and the responsibility that comes with it, they will get the job done," says Sean Higgins.

Serve your people. An effective leader knows that accomplishing any goal is only possible through serving the needs of employees. "If you let your team know what the goal is, if you take care of them, then they will accomplish it," says Love.

Put the right people in place. If you don't have the right team, you will never accomplish your goals. "Put your own personal preferences and bias aside when you hire," Love says. "Don't focus on hiring someone who reminds you of yourself 20 years ago."

From taking care of your team, to taking care of your finances, Chase for Business℠ is here to help. Read more at chase.com/forbusiness.

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