From the Culture Desk: When Startups Get Political

“It was great in the early days. Then things got political.” This is a common lament from my startup clients. When pressed to define “political,” the answers can get a bit fuzzy. Most find it hard to pinpoint, but, as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said of obscenity, they “know it when [they] see it.”

Asked to describe specific behaviors, one HR head talked about managers who push their own or their team’s agenda or compete for resources. A director client described others trying to make themselves look good to the CEO. Meanwhile, a CEO complained about employees who were indirect in their communications. “We value openness and transparency; there’s no room for politics here,” he said. Depending on context, each of these behaviors could be “political” (manipulative, self-serving, undermining) or could simply be “politically savvy.”

Take the polar opposite of the each behavior. A team leader who didn’t articulate a point of view about priorities nor advocate for resources for his or her team – we would call weak; an employee who simply toiled away in isolation hoping to get noticed – we would think hopelessly naive; and someone who said everything he or she thought all the time – we would judge to be tactless and insensitive. Okay, so “savvy” is good, but when political behavior runs amok, it creates a toxic workplace.

As the CEO of Hogan Assessments, Tomas Chemorro-Preuzic, puts it:  “to most employees, politics signal a discrepancy between what should be done and what is really done,” which leaves them defeated and angry. The result (or is it the cause? we have a bit of a chicken-egg problem here) is an erosion of trust:

  • Trust in the individual’s honesty and motives
  • Trust in leadership’s vision, which is seen to have been co-opted
  • Trust in the organization’s fairness, procedures, and values
  • Trust in the outcomes because decisions are based on something other than the merits

Lack trust means people don’t feel safe and live in some degree of fear. This triggers the fight or flight response:  fight (play politics) or flight: disengage. Self-protection and risk avoidance become survival skills. Retention and recruitment suffer. Innovation is stifled.

My recommendation for startups that are beginning to scale is to pay attention to culture, particularly as it relates to communication and decision-making. This is a vulnerable time in an organization’s development, when everybody-knowing-everybody becomes untenable and culture is coalescing. Now is the time for leaders to directly engage in open discussion about values and behavioral norms and to hold themselves and others accountable. This is not just touchy-feely optional stuff, it is essential to building the foundation of a healthy and productive working environment.