Office politics. At best, they’re something to be navigated to achieve your goals. At worst, they can make work a toxic hive that encourages back-stabbing and other bad behavior.
Startups have an advantage when it comes to office politics. When a team is made up of a few dedicated people, problems can be discussed and eliminated quickly. So it was at Facebook. As Facebook's global head of engineering Jay Parikh writes in Harvard Business Review:
Since our earliest days at Facebook, we’ve been mindful about not letting office maneuvering poison work life. We’d seen the negative effects that certain kinds of political behavior can have when they creep into office life, and we wanted to make sure we didn’t let them creep into ours.
To mitigate the rise of political behavior before they became destructive, Parikh says Facebook formulated five tactics. Here’s a breakdown.
Politics always starts with a person, or people, who get sucked into drama and discontent. At Facebook, while hiring for skills and smarts, they also screen candidates for their ability to work well together. To do this, they ask questions like: "What does office politics mean to you, and do you see politics as your job?" As Parikh explains, "Successful candidates should clearly demonstrate that their priorities are company, team, and self—in that order."
When promotions aren’t a measure of achievement, the dynamic of ascension shifts. Facebook doesn’t give people moving into management a promotion—it’s a lateral move, according to Parikh. Managers are still leaders, but the emphasis is on building a great team and developing team members’ careers.
To keep individual contributors (ICs) engaged and happy, they are given growth opportunities in new projects or groups. "This keeps ICs engaged by allowing them to broaden their areas of expertise and expand or focus their scope by moving to projects at different levels of development," Parikh says.
One of the biggest maneuvers in office politics is jumping over a coworker’s or manager’s authority and going to their supervisor to lodge a complaint. Some people will avoid this out of fear that it will come back to bite them—even when it’s a matter of unethical behavior. We reported on the larger consequences of staying mum recently with Volkswagen’s emissions scandal.
Parikh says Facebook tackles this three ways. One is by giving the okay for employees to raise issues. "We make escalation 'legal' by making sure people know they won’t be blamed or punished for speaking up or asking hard questions," he writes.
To foster even more constructive conversations, Parikh notes that Facebook holds weekly Q&A sessions with leaders where anyone can query and get a reply directly from Mark Zuckerberg or another member of the executive team.
Facebook also gathers and acts on employee engagement surveys. Rather than use an outside platform, the company created its own, which makes it easier to control questions and understand feedback, says Parikh.
"People are resentful when they don’t know why decisions are made," observes Parikh. That’s why hiring and performance reviews are given special attention.
To remove unconscious bias and dismantle the peer pressure in hiring, each person on a recruiting team must log their opinion on a candidate and are not able to see others’ until everyone submits their thoughts.
The dread of performance reviews is mitigated by a biannual 360-degree feedback session that draws from all parts of the organization. Managers are reviewed by their teams and other coworkers, and that information is sent to their supervisor and HR.
"This helps ensure managerial friendships don’t give unwarranted protective cover—concerning feedback from a peer or someone else in the org will be vetted, despite the manager ignoring it," Parikh says.
Parikh notes that this may be the most difficult tactic to apply, because it’s too easy to lay blame on politics for personal failings. It’s up to managers to offer perspective when things aren’t going right by further exploring specific situations.
This strategy usually surfaces a lack of communication on a decision. "When we dig in and provide that additional context, the notion that the decision was politically driven is dispelled," he explains.
Beyond that, Parikh says to eradicate politics, it’s important to lead by example and not hold any individual or team more accountable than others.
Of course, he admits, these tactics are not bulletproof, so the best course of action is always to return to open-ended questions. "We tell them that when they see something they don’t like, they should start by telling the other person what they saw, how they felt, and what the result of that action was," he says. The benefits far outweigh the investment of time spent talking. Says Parikh: "Working to stop politics before it starts results in a stronger organization and empowered, motivated teams."