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We've never met anyone who says β€œI love corporate politics.” So why is it so prevalent in some companies? The answer is, it all comes down to incentives.

Let’s define what we mean by politics: people advancing their careers or agendas by means other than merit and contribution. There are lots of different kinds of politics but this form seems the most bothersome.

It all starts from the top. A CEO creates politics by encouraging and sometimes incentivizing political behaviorβ€”often unintentionally. Once everyone sees that political behavior is not only accepted, but encouraged, it starts spreading throughout your company like a cancer.

Let's take a few examples to try and demonstrate how you might unintentionally create politics.

Scenario #1

A senior employee comes to you with a competitive offer in hand, asking for a promotion. You investigate the situation and decide that, since you really don’t want to lose this employee, you will cave and give them a promotion.

You have just created a strong incentive for political behavior.

After you fold, three things happen:

  1. Word gets out that β€œall you need to do to get a raise is to ask for it.” You have sent out the message that raises aren’t tied to performance.
  2. Less aggressive employees will be denied a raise simply by being apolitical.
  3. The lesson to your team is that the most politically astute employees get raises. Prepare for more politics!

If folding to raise requests creates an incentive for politics, what's the alternative?

  1. Put a process around raises. Do them annually, and don’t make them out of band.
  2. Create a leveling system that can be referred to objectively.
  3. Never cave to people who have competing offers.

Scenario #2

Your team is growing, and to minimize your number of direct reports, you decide to promote one of your ICs. You announce your decision to your team, expecting them to be relieved that they’re going to see more managerial attention.

You have just created a strong incentive for political behavior.

Whenever you promote someone, your team will evaluate whether merit or political favors (e.g. favoritism) yielded it. If it’s not clearly the former, the latter is assumed.

They generally react in these three ways:

  1. They sulk and feel undervalued.
  2. They outwardly disagree, campaign against that person, and undermine them in their new position.
  3. They attempt to copy any political behavior they perceive as generating the promotion.

So what's the correct solution here?

  1. Explain the problem to your team: you’re swamped.
  2. Create a job spec for the managerial position, and list objective criteria for anyone applying to be evaluated by.
  3. Run a full interview process, considering internal and external candidates.
  4. Now you have demonstrated that the promotion was due to merit.

"A peer-written nomination in the form of a promo packet can also demonstrate merit. It achieves the same result as the interview process (which would've been conducted by a panel consisting of peers), minus the pressure of interviewing well. It also has the added benefit of surfacing candidates who shun self-promotion, but has quietly built up a large sphere of influence without authority."

-Ye Cheng, VPE Paciolan


Like politics, it requires constant vigilance to prevent gossip spreading through your company. Unlike with politics, some people actually enjoy gossiping. For a start, don't hire those people. Even still, there are active measures you can deploy to prevent gossip.

Let's be precise again and define what we mean by gossip: saying negative comments behind someone’s back without an intention of helping them.

The answer to gossip is simply to have a zero-tolerance policy.

If you hear gossip about a person:

  • Offer to pull the gossiped party directly into the room so the message can be repeated in front of them.
  • Or ask for an assurance that they resolve this matter directly with the responsible individual.

If you find yourself gossiping about a person:

  • Resolve to address the issue as soon as possible directly with the relevant person.
  • Set a dedicated meeting or make a note to bring it up in a one-on-one.
  • Potentially ask for a clearing session with a mediator.