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An employee of mine tends to play office politics

Combo illustration by Franke James; Fairy by MisterM/istockphoto; Office background and illustrated text by Franke James

Dear Office Politics,

I have noticed an employee of mine tends to play office politics. She seems to be a work “avoider” and not quite yet a team player, yet clamors for a promotion within a few months. She seems to take a shine to certain people and is overall very friendly, but seems to have favorites.

Because of this, she tends to get herself involved in conversations and somehow finds out information that is none of her business – i.e. she knows who is getting promoted before any of us managers do. She has nosed in on conversations she doesn’t belong in (finding out how much someone else makes). She has exceptional technical ability which is great, but I need to channel this negative energy somewhere else.

I know that giving her more work and some extra challenges will help her, but she seems to have no interest in taking on anything more than what is hers. She claims not to have time, yet I see her on Twitter and Facebook, and talks to people a lot. So, what else can I do? I know that I need to sit with her and discuss why nosing into other people’s business will ultimately hamper her career, but an opportunity hasn’t presented itself just yet. I hate to bring this up before I need to. Ultimately what she is doing will place her in a bad spot in certain peoples’ eyes, and I don’t want that for her. I need to take this diamond in the rough and make her sparkle a bit more. I think this issue ultimately goes to work maturity. I have painted broad brushstrokes in my conversations with her thus far about leadership, which will set the tone for when I have to step into some of these more political situations, as I think it is ultimately a matter of time.

Any thoughts on where to start, an insight would be most helpful to me.


Seeking a Transformation

Follow-up letter from Seeking a Transformation
Thank you, your insights would be most helpful, she is truly as I describe, a diamond in the rough and I see that in her. I hope my insight is helpful in describing my problem of the transformation process and how to approach it from a coaching/mentoring perspective as I feel that she is very sensitive. The other fact to consider is that I feel she needs/wants special attention and clearly I can see she wants to be my favorite but hasn’t earned that spot yet. I think I hit the nail on the head with work maturity. Coming from my perspective, I understand where she is, maturity wise, just not sure how to get what I want out of her and of course, her willing cooperation. She had a favorite boss she had to give up for little old me, who of course, wants to help her but she doesn’t see that quite yet.


jane perdue

Dear Seeking a Transformation,

It’s obvious that you’ve put much thought into assessing the situation between you and your “diamond in the rough” employee, and you are spot on correct that action is needed. There are several critical elements to address in your coaching plan for her – regular communications, performance management, career development and feedback – that will create alignment between your desires and her motives, values and goals.

Seize the moment and provide timely feedback. Your employee is obviously well networked with the local grapevine given that she has many people to talk to plus access to advance knowledge of promotions and is aware of other’s pay rates. It’s human nature to want to know things – even better to know them ahead of time! – and to share that knowledge. If the culture of your organization frowns on spreading grapevine gossip let her know that. Help her understand that participating is potentially detrimental to her career and isn’t considered leadership behavior.

You say the opportunity to talk with your employee about this hasn’t presented itself. As her boss, make – and take – the opportunity to speak with her as soon as possible regarding the potential negative impacts of sharing inappropriate information. Since you voice your concerns that her behaviors will position her in a bad light “in certain peoples’ eyes” and that it’s “ultimately a matter of time” before that happens, it’s your leadership duty to be proactive in helping her avoid such a career disaster. Given your firm’s culture, it’s possible that her behaviors could cast a negative light on your leadership abilities as well – so another reason to meet post haste!

Make the connection. Based on her technical skills, her fondness for social interaction (Facebook and Twitter) and her desire for quick promotional opportunities as you’ve described them, is it possible that there are some generational differences at play here as those attributes are common with Gen X and Y’ers? If so, the two of you must have an in-depth chat sooner as opposed to later so you understand her motivations and she gets to know yours. Fostering transparency of intentions is an excellent foil for blunting manipulative office politics.

Jointly define performance management goals. You describe your employee’s job performance as “seems to be a work avoider, not quite yet a team player, claims not to have time, and talks to people a lot.” I’ve added the italics to pinpoint areas where you should define specific measurable tasks and observable behaviors that are shortcomings from your perspective. Is your view that she avoids work based on incomplete assignments or a lack of initiative? Has her task load increased? How much of an average work day does she spend on Facebook and in talking to others? Does she speak with others purely for social reasons or are there work-related reasons? Do you expect her to volunteer to take on extra duties and she hasn’t done so? Regardless of the source of your concerns, you need to define your specific expectations, and then engage in a positive discussion with your employee to understand things from her viewpoint and mutually agree to a course of action.

Discuss, define and plan for her career development. In your letters, you describe your employee as having exceptional technical ability and being a “diamond in the rough,” so you must believe her to be a high potential member of your team. Does she know this? If not, make it so! Identifying and then developing what your employee does best is a win-win outcome: positioning her for career growth as well as positioning you as a supportive boss. Your time and attention to growing her skills should go a long way toward helping her understand that you are sincerely interested in her and in advancing her career. If promotions within your organization are based on work that’s goes above and beyond one’s current job description, you must share that information with your employee as she may not be aware of the requirements for getting ahead. If taking an interest in anything more than what is her job is prerequisite of yours for promotion, share that with her as well. The two of you need a “meeting of the minds” so you clearly understand what her career objectives are and so that she understands what work outputs and behaviors you expect. As a leader, the responsibility for creating and sharing clearly defined expectations rests squarely with you.

Communicate, communicate, communicate! It appears that your employee has already created a network of contacts and relationships within the organization. Now’s the time for you to establish a system of regular and ongoing two-way dialogue between the two of you that will set the stage for you to disclose your thoughts, views and feelings as well as for your employee to reveal hers. Regardless of what generation an employee belongs to, having regular communications with the boss is crucial for establishing trust and for understanding one another.

You say you’ve “painted broad brushstrokes…about leadership.” Have you confirmed with her employee that she understands your meaning? Many of us hear what we want to hear, sometimes missing the intended message. So it’s important for the message deliverer – that’s you! – to close the loop and confirm understanding by asking clarifying questions.

In several sections of your letters, you use the phrases “I think” or “I feel” when addressing your employee’s situation. Aim for establishing such genuine communication rapport with her that your “think” and “feel” phrases are replaced with “I know.” Tactfully asking probing questions to clarify your thoughts is vital for removing assumptions that may get in the way of authentic communications.

Assess your leadership style. You say “I can see she wants to be my favorite but hasn’t earned that spot yet” and “she had a favorite boss she had to give up for little old me.” While every boss (myself included!) knows which employees on his/her team are the “go to” and high potential players, having a known favorite has the potential for creating unnecessary internal conflict and competition. As for referring to yourself as “little old me,” be proud of your accomplishments.

Working collaboratively with your employee to set and share clear expectations, to provide timely feedback, and to proactively manage her job performance will set you apart as a boss people want to work for and will positively assist you in transforming your “diamond in the rough” employee to a star performer.

Thank you for writing to OfficePolitics.com.

Warm regards,

Jane Perdue

About Jane Perdue, MBA
jane perdue Jane Perdue, MBA, CEO and founder of The Braithewaite Group, is a leadership consultant, coach, speaker and author who challenges your thinking at the intersection of the art of leadership and the science of business. The Braithewaite Group, is a small female-owned professional development and leadership consulting firm focusing on that exquisite but rare business balance between head and heart.

Jane’s career includes 20 years of executive level leadership, with 15 of those years spent as a Vice President for Fortune 100 companies. She writes a job coach column for the Charleston, SC Post and Courier and has made speaking and TV appearances discussing leadership, purpose, power and performance. Jane works with organizations and individuals to bring a sense of fun, adventure and limitless possibility — along with creative and playful thinking — to leading people, achieving common visions, delivering results and being our personal best.

  1. 3 Answers to “An employee of mine tends to play office politics”

  2. Feedback from Seeking a Transformation:

    Wow, this is incredibly insightful and I have regular meetings with her already and have begun addressing in my own way the concerns I have seen directly in her behavior in a very carefully considered way as you suggest.

    I am glad I started here as it got me to think about this whole situation proactively. I know her last manager documented my concerns in her annual review, and I will not hesitate to be her guide in her aspirations. I have already couched my coaching moments with her one-on-one in private in terms of the next level requirements and related expectations, and I take opportunities daily to coach and guide her thinking and behavior on a daily basis.

    She sits around very positive, career minded and level headed individuals, so we can “monitor” the social networking use/abuse. So far her use is minimal or something I would consider break-time related, nothing to be concerned with yet. The resulted turnaround I saw based on my careful thinking and laid out plan in communicating with her was nearly immediate and beyond my own expectation. Star performer potential is definitely there…

    I am confident that I am becoming a leader in her eyes, slowly, but as in all relationships it takes time to build rapport and trust, as you so aptly mention. I have her best interests at heart, and she is truly a super person.

    By Feedback from Letter-writer on Feb 17, 2010

  3. I get overlooked for promotions. My colleagues and subordinates have asked why I have not taken on higher positions. What they do not know is that I have applied for promotions, but was not selected. Upper management is very friend based, those who have been promoted have been less qualified, but have close relationships with decision makers. How should I address this? Do I go to HR?

    By Rani on Feb 26, 2010

  4. This boss seems to lack confidence in himself and his position, I can relate to that. I work for a boss that passed the Halo from me (old boss put it on me) to someone else in the office, less deserving, a work it girl, who does more strutting then work. I am happy not to have the halo, but do not like working while someone else is playing all day. Flat management creates rumors, less accountability, and low employee morale.

    By jane on Mar 12, 2010

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