How to build companies without politics

As a CEO, one of your goals is to foster a unified company pursuing a common, large mission.  Especially if you are running a start-up, you need everyone working together to beat the big guys. 

One insidious killer of companies is politics.  It is common in all organizations (even tiny ones) and can be a slow killer of the company when it pits employees against each other.   Internal politics even killed France’s hopes at the World Cup.  Getting everyone on the same team will increase communication, output, and success. 

Be your own clique

Politics comes from cliques.  Cliques form from people with similar backgrounds, world-views, or missions.  Cliques are impossible to avoid because humans are tribal and they want to belong to a subgroup.  But you can work to eliminate cliques within your company by making the entire company one big clique. 

By creating your own clique –Googlers, Rapleafers, etc. – you unite everyone in your company together.  It is “us” against those other guys.  

One way to do this is creating corporate uniforms.  Uniforms unite people.  This is why so many companies give out schwag (T-shirts, hats, sweatshirts, etc.) to their employees.   If you can have a huge sign outside your office, do it.  

Internally, celebrate the distinct piece of your culture by displaying it everywhere.  If you are a photo-sharing company, you might want to decorate your walls with great photos your users took.  Siebel built a company around serving their customers – so they had pictures of their customers around their office.  Rapleaf focuses on celebrating our employees – so we have pictures of our employees everywhere.  

Some companies focus on having an enemy.  If you are Mozilla and you are working to create the world’s best browser, you might hate Microsoft.  You’ll need a good reason (“they are closed, we are open”) and a large and powerful enemy that will unite the company together to take on a hard challenge. 

Hire the non-political person

The best way to not introduce politics in your organization is to try not to hire political people in the first place.  That’s really hard to do but here are some ideas that you might want to incorporate into your hiring process.

Office2 One way you can eliminate cliques is by focusing on diversity.  People from similar backgrounds tend to form a clique and others will feel excluded just by the fact that they are not from that background.  If the first seven people at your company are all of the same race, you’ve got problems.  And if they are all from the same college, you might institute an unintended bias.  One other good rule is to try to recruit and hire female engineers.  Gender diversity is important to break down cliques and that’s something all tech companies (including my own) could do a better job at. 

Try not to hire people that dislike their former managers or employees.  Focus on people that generally talk well of others and see the positive in others.  Mean people tend to think of others as pawns – so look to hire considerate employees.

Do your due diligence on any exec you are hiring from a big company.  It is very hard to advance in a large company without being really good at office politics.  So be wary of hiring someone who has been very successful at a large organization as they might not understand that your company is different. 

Only hire A-players.  A-players are, by definition, doers, and they are more likely to hire A-Players themselves.  If you are not sure if someone is an A-Player, don’t take the chance.  Pass on them and focus on recruiting someone who is smart, nice, and gets things done.   Look for people that, by nature, share the credit and get their job satisfaction by doing, achieving, and solving hard problems. 

When you do hire people, make sure you clearly convey your corporate values to them.  One of my favorite corporate values at Rapleaf is that “Rapleafers do not value our own ideas more than those ideas generated by our teammates.”  I love that.  I was once at a meeting where one of our engineers was strongly advocating for a particular architecture and against another idea … and then I noticed that he was arguing against his OWN idea and did not even realize it.  It was awesome. 

Michael_theoffice Set the Example: Politics start at the top

It is important that you don’t play any politics.  That seems obvious but some of the CEOs who complain about politics in their organization practice things like pitting executives against each other and hoarding information.  

Water flows downhill and culture spreads much faster from the top.   Try to ensure that your top execs are really team players – and make sure their actions mirror their words.  

Create transparency and open communication

Great political players often win by hoarding information.  You can stop them by making the information flow at the company as open as possible. 

Tell your employees what is going on and make sure there is transparency throughout the organization.  This becomes more and more difficult as the company grows but it is extremely important to keep information moving quickly.  Do everything possible to stop information bottlenecks in the organization and try to create multiple redundancies.  

Promote based on merit

As a CEO, you’ll always want to ensure the very best people get promoted and get more responsibility and more recognition within the company.  While it is obvious who the best people are when the company is tiny, it becomes harder to know that as the company grows.  As CEO, your goal should be to meet with people at the lowest levels of the company and get their thoughts about the business, how they are doing, and who else they love working with. 

It is incredibly important that you promote the very best people. If only average people are being promoted, everyone else will assume it is for a political reason and the rational response will be for them to start playing politics to ensure their success in the organization.  Conversely, if you fire or discipline people that play politics, you will be sending the right message to everyone.

Summation: very few people actually want to work for an organization that has politics.  Most people (especially the doers that you want) abhor politics and will be drawn to an organization that focuses on developing great talent, solving hard problems, and getting things done.

(special thanks to Simi Chaudhry for her help and edits)

18 thoughts on “How to build companies without politics

  1. Mike Lee

    I love this Auren. I will sending this around to the entire management team at my company. keep this up!

  2. Robert

    Hi Auren, great post and pretty comprehensive!
    maybe, you could have added office space – open plan, same floor offices won’t create cliques as much as different floors and closed offices do.
    In the end, it’s a bit like diets though – most people know what they should do (eat less than you burn). it’s the discipline that makes the difference.
    But since tschermans are ffferry goot wis discipline, looks like there was hope for me 😉

  3. Auren Hoffman

    Great point Robert! floor plan can be really important. i’m a big fan of keeping things open so that the lines of communication are open.

  4. Pastora San Juan Cafferty

    Auren, I very much enjoyed your article. I could not agree more. Diversity may be the best way to address the issue of corporate politics and clique formation. I also hear from exec comp consultants that it is also responsible for best practices in compensation. Diverse committees and boards raise better questions and challenge management to perform for pay. I hope you are having a great summer. Ours is so short one has to enjoy every minute.

  5. John

    Thanks Auren. Good info that describes how I always tried to run the
    businesses for which I was responsible at NationsBank and Bank of America. One of those businesses started with 4 people and seven years later had 300. Always had one mission and were always one team. Oh yes, we always had fun. One thing that continued to surprise me is how so many business leaders rise to positions of prominence in large companies by managing upstream and ignoring downstream. Usually those units fail as a result. Waiting for the article on how to manage a manager who works like that. We have all had one or more.
    Stay well, John

  6. Scott - AdRocket

    Great article, Auren. very good advice, I’ve experienced company-stalling politics in startups as small as 40 people. I could point back to who the cause was each time – not a A player.

  7. Steph Milam

    Really enjoyed this post – particularly what you wrote about open communication. I would love to hear more of your thoughts on this. I believe many companies rely a bit too heavily on email communication without in-person or phone meetings/discussions. This often leads to ‘cloudy’ information and, alas, fuel for office politics.

  8. Umberto Milletti

    Auren, great stuff.
    Something that we have done is to make “no politics” one of our company values (one of just two at this point). Having the (founder) CEO explain that politics are not welcome at InsideView, and talk about what we can all do to keep them outside our doors, sends the message that being political is not a path to success here.
    Obviously values are just talk if they are not backed by the walk, but describing in strong term the desired behavior can stem what otherwise might creep in.

  9. David Binetti

    I’m convinced office politics would drop by half if the BCC field were banned from email. Anyone who uses it is, by definition, playing politics.

  10. anonymous

    Thank you, and true words – some of which I am experiencing first-hand at the moment. Particularly uniting towards a common goal (or against an enemy). I work in an environment where hourly workers outnumber “higher-educated” ones 6:1 – motivation is difficult. “…Make sure there is transparency throughout the organization.” – this is pivotal; suspicion is a dangerous virus that can spread quickly. As an intern, I move through the established hierarchy with ease and hear both sides of a given story. An opportunity I am doing my best to exploit for the greater good.
    Side note: I especially enjoyed your mention of female engineers, there are five in my class of 70 and they often bring a new perspective to the table (and if were lucky, cookies).
    Keep the posts coming,

  11. Kurt

    Very nice. A few points for future thought, though:
    1) Any effective organization should usually include a few “political types”. These people are not necessarily technical (though it helps if they have a strong understanding of the products or services that the organization is trying to sell), but generally are attuned to the nuances and challenges that come when you do have large organizations working together. Politicals are often themselves quite knowledgeable because they have played the game themselves, and they recognize that, in many cases, it is not the technical merit of the product or service (or message) but the ability to glad-hand and to recognize who can (and who can’t) make meaningful decisions.
    Not surprisingly, these people should be in public facing positions, which usually involves the sales and marketing tracks within an organization – up to and including the CEO (who in practice is almost invariably chief sales person). Placing them in an internal management position is a major mistake, because their natural tendency to want to “game the system” will almost invariably put them into positions where they can destabilize your management structure, and can often cause an organization to divert precious cycles into domain building.
    2) Recognize that politics is the art of getting people to do things they would not otherwise do on their own initiative. It is not, in and of itself, about the accumulation of power. Power is the authority to do those things needed to accomplish a specific set of objectives or responsibilities, though in many cases power can be abused when people use that power to accomplish things that fall outside of their responsibilities, typically for their own aggrandizement, though it can also be abused when the person in question lacks the skills or temperament to use that power effectively towards accomplishing their assigned jobs.
    This means that managing power distribution levels is one of the key aspects of politics, and requires that the person granting the power have a good character understanding of the person receiving that power. This isn’t always easy – we tend to grant more authority to our friends, because we know and trust them, than we do to people we don’t know well because it is generally easier to get a character read of people you have known for some time. We also tend to let people who we know well go for too long when its obvious that they are either abusing or misusing their assigned power, while we may often give people who we don’t know well far less latitude to make the mistakes necessary to learn. This is one of the reasons why power struggles can tear an organization apart – or cause it to drift into an increasingly ineffective stasis: power coupled with nepotism (cliques) means that one’s work or skill counts less than one’s ability to coddle-up to the person with the primary power, and this in turn means that often the most valuable players are the ones that are excluded from advancing within the organization.
    3) As a technical architect for a reasonably large project ($500 million project for the US National Archives), I am frequently involved in determining both positions and people to fill those positions. Different jobs require both different sets of technical skills and different sets of people skills. I look for good communicators as a general rule, because even the most technically astute developer is not going to be worthwhile to me if he or she is unable to communicate the brilliance of their innovations to others.
    At the project manager level, I look for people who can inspire, and can form “positive” cliques that harness competition in a way to assume that objectives are not only met but exceeded – and who can readily separate for herself such cohesion building from empire building. I also usually designate a second to that PM, someone who can play the necessary bad cop to the PM’s good cop (and in general I try to get new managers into that asst. PM role first so that they can learn both sides of the coin. Finally, I believe strongly in daily scrums and agile methodologies, which can usually provide a vehicle to air grievances while they are still small, while at the same time providing a daily window into the development process.
    One effect of that is that it gives those people who might feel they have a better solution a chance to bring this up, rather than it being locked away because they are shy or feel they have no authority (as an intensely shy person myself, I know how hard this can be). I also usually try to set up mentors throughout the organization who can also act as a sounding board.
    4) Finally, I see signs of disruptive politics as an indication that the person involved either feels passionately about something but is being shut out of the process, or is in fact not ready to take on the responsibilities so required of her, regardless of their level. It’s usually pretty easy to determine which of these two is the case – the person who is being shut out many be at a level below where their competence exists, and as such they should be challenged to put their words into actions. Even failing that may not necessarily be a negative indication – it may be that they were fundamentally right, but didn’t have all the resources that they needed to make it happen – which is why sometimes a second (usually more scaled back) test is necessary.
    On the other hand, sometimes people want political responsibility simply to assuage their own vanity, or want the potential pay increases or related benefits that come with that, or are out to make political points – and sometimes they are just not ready for the job yet. Usually those things too become obvious when given a chance to prove themselves. In those cases, the best potential solution is to move them laterally in an organization but at a lower actual level of responsibility. For those who are engaged in politics because they see it simply as a means of enriching themselves, the best place for them is out of the organization altogether.
    Thus, any organization in which politics is thick on the ground is typically one where there are too many layers of management, where there is comparatively little oversight of long term career growth, and where the thought leaders in the organization are weak or absent.
    Anyway, thanks for the insights.

  12. Joe

    Once again, another article that is spot on. I really look forward to your articles and I must say that you are developing into an important thought leader here in the Valley/SF.The caution mentioned in hiring “institutionalized” execs from big companies is indeed a concern but one should also realize that when you look at an Oracle or a Cisco for example you are essentially looking companies within these companies that in many cases have their own cultures that in many ways reflect the leadership at the department or organizational level.
    One of the best bosses I had, who ran a large organization, that had little to no politics was when I worked at Oracle of all places. The reason this organization had little politics is that my VP wasn’t an “enabler” of office politics.
    What do I mean by being an enabler?
    1. Does the loudest voice in your organization always get recognized at the expense of others?
    2. Do you have people in your organization who have an attitude that for
    them “to win everyone else has to lose”? These personality profiles can
    prove to be especially “toxic” within a work environment. I have noticed
    that this type of person will go out of their way to call out very negative aspects of co-workers, real as well as imagined that in many cases have little to do with the progression of the teams objectives.
    3. Do you have managers in your company who avoid confrontation in the form of dealing with “conflict resolution”? Ignoring problems within teams does nothing to solve the problem and actually contributes to creating a “toxic environment” within the work place. I think this is a big problem in the Valley now…… managers who can’t put their foot down or are trying too hard to be their employee’s “pal”. A manager needs to be able to compartmentalize between serious direction and being a social butterfly.
    I had inherited a team a few years back where I had two direct reports to me that simply did not get along. Each came to me as they did with their last boss to subtly or directly report on one thing or another that the other was or was not doing. Issues that were petty in nature as well as bordered on character defamation. The situation was toxic as each got other members of the team involved in their little war with each other.
    So how did I handle it? I quickly managed one out of the company entirely (stick, example) and the other one got the message. I worked on mentoring (carrot) the other on teamwork and emphasizing that to “get ahead” defending ones self via counter-defamation wasn’t necessary and actually created a situation where he became a part of the problem. This person truly transformed their behavior to becoming a leader on the team as well as walked away with skills that he can use for the remainder of his career.
    It’s amazing how actually sitting down with someone and explaining objective reasoning, laying out concrete examples of teamwork, ect…. can help.
    Anyway, great article. I’m off in an hour to have lunch with old VP at
    Oracle after these many years.

  13. Sanjay Hungund

    Thank you for a very thought provoking article. It is a great and very relevant article for everyone. Here are some of my thoughts.
    Sometime back I went and looked up the meaning of the word politics. It is interesting to note the meaning. According to wikipedia (my second best source for information after “googling” a word or phrase) “Politics is a process by which groups of people make collective decisions.”. Which means politics should be there otherwise we cannot make decisions or “collective decisions”. When we discuss politics or “office politics” it generally connotates “unfair politics” or “dirty politics”. This is what we all should avoid because “dirty politics” or “unfair politics” will lead to the downfall of an organization. It most certainly in the least it will stifle the growth of any organization.
    Having made this point I agree with all that is said about not having or no fostering politics (or rather “dirty” and “unfair” politics.
    Having common goals, aligning individual goals with the goals of the organization, open communication, teamwork, encouragement, appreciation (in public and criticism in private, thanks to the great Dale Carnegie), motivation, leading by example are some of the actions (not words) that will bring about a positive environment in any organization leading to its success and the success of all on board.

  14. edward

    Hi Auren. I think this is a great article. You made an excellent point when you said, doer’s do like political companies.
    I do have one question. You said…
    “Try not to hire people that dislike their former managers or employees.”
    Why do you feel this is so?
    I know that some people are “negative”, and this could be a sign of a complainer. Lord knows we have all seen them. I question this line however, because it does happen. Sometimes a manager and an employee are not suited to work together. This can be an isolated issue or it could mean the person just isn’t happy in their field. Maybe where they came from was overly political and they hated it.
    As an example, I worked for a larger company in the IT department several years ago. I hated my manager, and her manager (yes hated). To this day if you asked me about them, I cant say anything nice. They beliieved in many flawed practices. “Reward in private. Reprimand publicly” was one of them. “verify I want you to do a ticket, even if I assign it to you”. (no I didn’t make that up.)
    Eventually I quit because of them. Along the same lines, if you ask me about my last or present manager, I can say great things about them.
    So, I would say, disliking former managers or employees isn’t necessarily political.

  15. Auren Hoffman

    Edward — very good point. if someone hates all their past employers, it is probably a bad sign. but just an isolated incident is probably ok.

  16. Danny Oppenheimer

    As usual, thought provoking.
    I think that cliquishness and politics are very different dimensions. Politics, in my mind, are all about understanding power structures in an organization and exploiting them for personal rather than organizational gain. That can mean joining the most powerful clique. Or it can mean buttering up the tech guy, or secretary. Or trying to get control of budgets or info, or anything that can be used to promote one’s own agenda and career. Later in your essay you talk about flow of info being important to overcoming politics, which is an implicit acknowledgment that ‘politics comes from cliques’ isn’t maybe the ideal definition.
    Allowing all info to be free won’t stop good politicians from playing politics, it just changes the resources that are valuable for gaining power. Since info is scarce, it’s usually a power resource, but if it becomes a public good, political players will start hoarding other resources instead. There’s always SOME resource that’s valuable in an organization.
    Which is why I think that the best advice you give is about hiring people who aren’t politicians. The problem, as you note, is that its hard to know who those people are – people who are good at politics are also usually pretty good at hiding the fact that they are.
    Anyway, hope all is well with you,
    Danny Oppenheimer
    Princeton University
    Department Of Psychology


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