What Kindergartners Teach Us About Office Politics

By Russ Levanway, President

What keeps talented, smart individuals from working well together as a team? This is the question on the minds of our Culture Committee lately as we read The Culture Code, an excellent book by Daniel Coyle that claims to unlock the secrets of highly successful groups.

In it, Coyle discusses the work of Peter Skillman, a designer and engineer who conducted an experiment in which he asked groups of strangers to build the tallest tower they could using just

  • 20 pieces of uncooked spaghetti
  • one yard of transparent tape
  • one yard of string
  • and one standard-sized marshmallow.

The groups he and others assembled for the study included recent one of MBA graduates and one of… kindergartners. Of these groups, can you guess who built the highest tower?

Kindergartners. Over and over again.

In a TED Talk about his “Marshmallow Challenge,” Skillman described the differences between these two groups’ methods: the kindergartners jumped right in, barely talking at all, and attempted to build something together. It wasn’t smooth. But they tried things completely without pretense. No planning, no schematics, no thoughtful questions.

Now the MBA grads were totally different. The term Coyle uses to describe their communication is “status management,” but it could also be described as office politics: Who’s in charge? Who gets credit? Who’s the leader? What happens if I do something wrong? Is this my job? Instead of diving into the work, the individuals became stuck in a whole layer of interpersonal communication that bogged down the project.

Were the MBA graduates smart? Definitely. Talented? Of course. But Skillman’s study shows that assembling a group of talented, smart people isn’t enough to ensure success.

Interaction over Ideation

In companies, team focus often lies on ideation, creativity, and solutions, which is great and absolutely critical to success. But without positive, healthy interactions, ideas, creativity and solutions never see the light of day.

Think about it: Does a group have a hierarchy of control? Bureaucracy? What happens when people make mistakes? The answers to these questions can identify markers of company culture that help or hinder a group’s success.

All of this, of course, points again to the concept of trust; As I said in a recent post, where there is trust, there is also productivity. But if trust has not been established on a team, status management and office politics will forever be an issue.

Antidotes To Office Politics

How can a company minimize office politics and build trust? At CIO Solutions, we have a series of standing meetings about integrating the company, and being on the lookout for the signs and symptoms of status management is key. Here are a few of the solutions we’ve found helpful to building trust in groups.

  • Rotate leadership.

Collaborative meetings are all about getting everybody’s input at the table, which means the structure of the meeting should allow for that. Typically, shyer folks will give way to bolder ones. When that happens, they won’t speak up, and thus their ideas are lost, which is tragic. One way to fight this scenario is by assigning a rotating chair to the meeting. Also make sure the chair works only as a facilitator, not as someone with an agenda for the group. Their main goal should be to get people talking, not just making sure the meetings start and end on time.

  • Allow for discomfort.

When people broach unpopular opinions, do they get their hand slapped? Do they feel like they’re not heard? And are mistakes absolutely unacceptable? In meetings, do you allow people to come up with ideas that aren’t full baked? Do you allow conversation to develop and continue, of do you shut it down and continue with your agenda? A punitive environment makes people fearful, cautious and less secure. We try to give a lot of latitude for making mistakes because people do grow from them, and because they open the door for boldness to share new ideas.

  • Turn down the bravado.

When an overbearing leader asks his or her team how they’re doing in a meeting, members won’t share how overwhelmed or frustrated they are because they feel the need to convey strength. They’ll be afraid that if they show weakness or insecurity, they’ll lose face. Worse, the team will suffer because the real issue will obstruct productivity. By opening discussion and abandoning preconceived ideas and agendas, a leader establishes trust and safety, allowing a team to share what’s really on their minds.

Where can you see office politics and status management threatening your team? Have you placed too much significance on the talent of your individuals and forgotten about the importance of healthy, trusting interaction?

Russ Levanway, President// Russ is a sought-after public speaker, technology expert, and community leader. As the president of an ever-growing managed services provider with offices in San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Fresno, Russ’s goal is to sustain and grow an IT company that provides incredible value for clients, and a great workplace for his team. When he’s not collaborating to chart out the future of CIO Solutions, Russ serves on several non-profit boards, volunteers at the People’s Kitchen and travels the world with his wife and two daughters. More on Russ>>

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