Anti-Venom for Toxic Politics: 3 Key Ingredients

Robert S. Tipton, © 2014,

Toxic office politics waste an unbelievable amount of time that could be used FAR more productively. And, I find WAY too many people just simply accept the toxic situation as being “just the way it is around here.”

Okay — here’s a different viewpoint. Stop that! Quit accepting unhealthy, toxic situations as “normal” — they aren’t!

by Robert S. Tipton

A Tuna Sandwich Named Kevin

What comes to mind when you hear the words “company politics?”

Brown nosing? Tortured meetings? Low trust? Micromanagement? Playing the game of organizational “Survivor” (where someone is going to get voted off the island)?

Company politics aren’t necessarily bad – after all going back to its Latin roots, politics is a neutral word that literally means, “Of the People.” Consequently, the word “politics” doesn’t have any particular connotation. Instead, it is “we the people” that have given it such commonly negative adjectives to describe it — for example when we say, “dysfunctional, or toxic, politics.”

Dysfunction is a poison, a cancer, an illness in an organization and its eradication begins with the right prescription, the right treatment plan, the right formula. Politics is just a way to describe the interaction among people – it’s the dysfunction we want to eliminate so that the “of the people” (or politics) stuff can once again be productive. Does that make sense?

So here goes – here are my three secret ingredients in the “anti-venom” to dysfunctional, toxic politics: 1) Disrupt the dialog; 2) Look at what’s right not who’s right; and 3) Focus forward.

3 Key Ingredients in the Anti-Venom for Toxic Politics

1. Disrupt the Dialog

Dysfunction grows when the swirling, repeating stories in an organization have lost their objectivity. In other words, people believe and share stories without stopping to do fact-checking, or even to do any reasonableness-testing. Plain and simple, it’s rumor-mongering – and it’s toxic.

In situations like this, the dialog needs disruption. The fuel behind a successful disruption (sometimes this looks more like an intervention!) is objectivity. Bring in a fresh perspective, someone with a new set of eyes, and ask them to share their observations about the situation. Ask them to assess, observe and share.

However, make sure that the objectivity is compassionately direct. Recognize that being honest is different than being therapeutic. In other words, be sure to ask someone to help who has adeptness is delivering hard news in such a way that people can receive it, understand it, and be able to consider moving in a positive direction as a result.

2. Look at “What’s Right” and not “Who’s Right”

Here’s the challenge related to this secret ingredient – is it possible to not think less “of” ourselves – instead, to think less “about” ourselves? In other words, can we take the situation seriously, but not ourselves?

Oh, man… This can be REALLY difficult for some people who keep score when it comes to the times and places “they” are viewed as contributing. It’s almost like they’re playing the game of “Survivor” when it comes to change — where alliances and immunity (playing the “game” the right way) are more important than doing the right thing. And, they’re insufferable sources of dysfunctional politics.

Here’s the antidote… Demonstrate a self-less confidence when it comes to the situation at hand. Quiet your ego’s need to “be right,” and focus on the big picture, the overall benefits to the organization. It’s exactly in line with Jim Collin’s observation about level five leaders in his seminal work, Good to Great: “Level five leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company through a blend of humility and professional will. Their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.”

3. Focus Forward

This secret ingredient may at first seem like a subtle distinction, but I’ve found it to be THE most powerful ingredient of all. Human nature resists “changing things” – particularly when we are forced into the change (like culture, or behavior, or attitudes).

However, human nature LOVES the pursuit of new, compelling, powerful ideas.
Therefore, stop trying to change, or fix, or remediate a broken, dysfunctional, highly-political environment or culture. Really, stop it. Instead, work to engage everyone in reaching for something new. In other words, focus forward, not backward. An oft-used visual metaphor is this: take down the rear-view mirror, and look out the windshield/windscreen instead.

As for the laggards, the die-hards, the stuck-in-the-muck types that consistently try to turn the focus back to the past, ignore them. Give no power to their messages of doom and gloom – simply acknowledge that you’ve heard them, and give no time or attention to looking backward. Eventually they’ll either start looking forward, or they’ll self-select to get out.

Now What?

There was a time in our culture when politics were considered to be positive — in general. Really, that’s true. We admired our statesmen and stateswomen, we eagerly followed their leadership, and we didn’t disintegrate into dysfunction. That situation is possible for you – but not with rumor-mongering, or grand-standing, or continuing to be stuck in the past.

Remember, it’s the dysfunction that is the problem – not the politics – and apply the three secret ingredients to the situation.

You and your organization will feel better – and soon.

About the Author:

Robert S. Tipton is a high-energy, innovative, and insightful transformational change architect, leadership facilitator, keynote speaker, and author who is passionate about helping individuals, groups and entire organizations reach for and achieve exceptional results. He lives in the Denver, Colorado USA area, and enjoys assisting clients in the non-profit, government, utility, healthcare and education industries across the world.

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© 2014, Robert S. Tipton, All Rights Reserved, earlier version of this post was published in e.Mile, The People Development Magazine (READ HERE)

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