Can 360-Degree Reviews Politic-Proof Your Workplace?

The practice of currying favors with decision-makers, rather than focusing on substantive achievement, is never going away, is it? Maybe not, but could you as trainers and Human Resources executives institute policies to make this kind of maneuvering less successful?

On USA Today’s Website for college students, a recent piece posted on 5 Ways to Manage Workplace Politics reminded me of all the rude awakenings I’ve had, and continue to have, in the work world—15 years after first becoming an employed professional.

The 360-degree performance appraisal is a great first step to making office politics less potent. Rather than having just one person to kiss up to, the under-performer disguised as an achiever has to fool many more. These reviews are especially effective when the reviewers are assured that they can speak freely without their boss being told who said what about him. Rather, the boss receives a report from Human Resources with a summary of the collective findings about his performance from all those he works with. He isn’t be able to pinpoint members of his team for punishment. Human Resources then can see whether his manager’s positive review was the outlier, or the consensus, of all those he works with.

Nearly every work group I’ve been a part of has one person who is the favorite son or daughter of the manager. Sometimes that person deserves it, but many other times, the position of favor is puzzling. It’s kind of like the workplace corollary of the dating world’s “love is blind” saying.

In addition to 360-degree reviews, are there other ways to make workplace politics less important? One solution could be to institute “term limits” in managerial positions that force managers to move on to another position every five or 10 years. In a small company, this might be difficult, but in a large company, it wouldn’t necessarily be that hard, and the benefits would extend beyond limiting the effects of office politics. You would get a fresh perspective on problem solving and new product development and marketing. Using term limits to offset office politics, though, would only work if you could move the managers to another department in which those he would be working with (especially the manager’s new boss) would be mostly unfamiliar with him, so he would be forced to start with a blank slate, and prove himself all over again.

In a big enough company, you could mandate all employees stay no longer than five to 10 years in any position, moving them laterally if there are no higher-level positions available that they are qualified for.

The article in USA Today advises the recent college graduate new to the workforce to avoid gossip. That’s probably a good idea, but from a Human Resources or trainer perspective, office gossip can be a great tool. No matter how comprehensive the performance review, you’re always going to learn the most simply by keeping your ears open. You might find, for instance, that there’s a common thread to all the gossip you overhear. The common theme may be a culture in which favoritism is valued over substance, or anger that work/life balance is not only neglected, but managers are rewarded for unreasonable demands. My sister, for example, once worked for a company that wanted to FedEx her documents over the weekend to review when she told them she might be spending a rare weekend away from home. From what my sister told me, managers routinely made those kinds of requests because they would be rewarded by their bosses for doing so, rather than out of necessity. If you hear a story like this repeat itself in the gossip you overhear, there may be something to it.

Come to think of it, office gossip may be the ultimate 360-degree review of managers and high-level executives. Some employees may even be smart enough to help you overhear what they’re afraid of telling you directly, or writing in their reviews. I inadvertently did this myself recently. I was telling my tale of workplace woe to a colleague in the kitchen a couple months ago only to turn around and find the CEO just outside the doorway photocopying documents. I don’t know how much he overheard, but I hope it was just enough to begin culling the politically favored weeds from our workforce.

Are 360-degrees reviews and gossip good ways to combat office politics? How does your company avoid advancing unqualified but favored people?

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