The 2016 G20 summit proved that even the world’s top names in politics aren’t immune from posturing and power plays. How can HR spot and stop petty office politics from becoming something more troublesome?
If you’re having a bad week at work, spare a thought for US President Barack Obama. On Monday, he appeared to be snubbed by the Chinese after arriving in Beijing without a typical red-carpet welcome, or even a staircase to get him off the plane. He had to exit through the rear end of Air Force One instead.
Then on Monday, the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who he was due to meet, calls him “the son of a whore” after it was suggested that the US might raise the extrajudicial murders in the country’s brutal drug wars. Obama subsequently cancelled their scheduled meeting.
This kind of power play is acted out in workplaces all over the planet. Office politics isn’t something you can legislate against, nor is it is easy to expose. It’s often a covert and underhanded activity of the kind Obama experienced on the tarmac in China.
Human resources professionals must exercise great skill in negotiating these fraught relationships. Ignoring office politics potentially undermines the culture of an organisation.
Karen Gately, human resources consultant and author of The People Manager’s Toolkit, says it’s important for HR to take the lead here and be seen as impartial and transparent.
“HR has a responsibility, as the ethical touchstone of an organisation, to not only model good behaviour, but set out clear expectations around the culture that truly enables good collaboration,” she says.
If people aren’t being real or open or working to a shared outcome, then collaboration is undermined.
“Certainly, there is a role for HR to play in directly challenging behaviours. Sometimes, it’s a coaching role, getting people to recognise their behaviours and showing them that it might be better to adopt a different approach,” Gately says.
But human resources isn’t there to do a leader’s job for them, she emphasises.
“HR is there to inspire and help them manage their teams – coaching the senior people in an organisation to lead by example. To do that, you must start from a place of clarity, defining and modelling what non-political behaviour looks like.”