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Virtual and Project Management Expert: Writer, Speaker, Educator. Author of Managing Without Walls and Fundamentals of Technology Management. President of Garton Consulting Group.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Politics On The Virtual Team

Politics are a way of life in most organizations regardless of the size or type of company.  Just because a team is virtual and its members do not interact face-to-face on a regular basis does not mean that you will avoid company politics.  Company culture is a major contributor to company politics and the type of culture will define the type of politics.  The more rigid the hierarchy the more overt political maneuvering will be present. A culture that encourages open and honest discussion and feedback without fear of retribution is going to have less visible politics than one that does not. It is important to understand that just because the politics are not immediately obvious, does not mean they do not exist.  Covert politics can be as detrimental to a company or team as overt politics and that which is more difficult to quantify is more difficult to manage and control. On a virtual team you are more likely to encounter covert, manipulative politics than the more obvious type.  This is because generally virtual teams have a less rigid hierarchy and less top-down management. 

Everyone has a personal agenda, whether it be positive or negative. Virtual team members are no exception. Some people's agenda's are to get ahead, at any cost. Others are  focused on doing a great job and getting personal recognition or rewards. Some people just want to do their work everyday, go home, relax, and not get involved in any conflict or confrontation.  Politics derive from these personal agendas.  It is not just highly ambitious people who contribute to company politics. Anyone is capable of creating or exacerbating politics. Politics are about getting what you want and influencing others to want the same things so that you have a better chance of getting what you want. 
The biggest problem for the virtual manager is that it is not easy to see what is going on “behind the scenes.” Just because your team is virtual, and your team members do not interact face-to-face on a daily basis does not mean that politics will not be a part of daily work life. It might take longer for the alliances to form, and for the impact of those alliances to become apparent but they will form and they will shape the face of politics on your team.

If the spirit of your team is one of everyone looking to get noticed for their individual contributions, over time team members will start to feel insecure and self-conscious about their work. Your team members will feel like they are in competition with each other. When the driving force on a team is the competitiveness among team members, people can get amazingly creative. Unfortunately, this creativity is not usually channeled into doing great work; it is channeled into getting noticed. This can result in little business benefit from the creative ideas and feelings of unhappiness and anger among team members.

Some people are more apt to politicking than others. Some personality types thrive on gossip and rumors. They cannot wait to tell anyone who will listen information about others regardless of its authenticity. We all know at least one person who fits this category. It could be a coworker, family member, friend, or neighbor. This is the person you go to if you want to know anything about anyone. If that person doesn’t know, you can rest assured that nobody else does, either! These people give you lots of information that you really shouldn’t know about people and it is easy to find yourself having fun and enjoying hearing all the gossip about others. However, these people are fueling the flames of discontent, exacerbating negative situations, and increasing the political unrest within their environment. Remember, they are probably talking about you when you are not there! If this person works on your team, you are going to have a lot of virtual politics distributed via your virtual private network.

To build and maintain a non-politically motivated team, you should avoid competing against your team members. It doesn’t matter if you have an idea that is better than someone else’s. As the manager, it is not your job to always have the right solution. It is your job to grow and develop your team members, to help them come up with the best ideas. Give them clues to keep them on the right track, rather than correcting or pointing out where they went wrong.  Let your team members take credit for great ideas, even if you helped to develop them.  Celebrate team successes publicly and applaud individual result privately.  This will help to avoid "superstar" behavior and the feelings of inequality among your team members.  One team member's strength should strengthen the entire team.  If you cultivate this on your team, your team members will not feel threatened by each other, they will be motivated to support each other and help each other grow and develop.

You can build even stronger teamwork by enabling and encouraging high quality communication between your team members and each other, as well as between your team members and you. Good quality teamwork leaves very little room for politics to squeeze their way in. Managing without politics will enable you to successfully manage without walls!

Follow Colleen on twitter: @colleengarton

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