When personal motivations trump company goals, it can hinder a company’s ability to get things done. Since our earliest days at Facebook, we’ve been mindful about not letting office maneuvering poison work life. We’d seen the negative effects that certain kinds of political behavior can have when they creep into office life, and we wanted to make sure we didn’t let them creep into ours.
We’re not so naive as to think we can change human nature altogether; where there are humans, there will be feelings to consider, and politics will crop up. But when we approach our interactions thoughtfully, a company’s culture can be a powerful antibody against destructive office politics.
We’ve found five tactics especially useful in our effort to keep our company culture healthy and productive.
Look for empire builders, self-servers, and whiners in the hiring process — and don’t hire them. All companies screen candidates for skill sets and experience. Everyone wants to hire the best and smartest people they can find. We add additional criteria, screening for the ability to calibrate to a team environment. We use prompts such as:
- “Describe your responsibilities as a leader.”
- “Can you tell me about four people whose careers you have fundamentally improved?”
- “Describe a few of your peers at your company and what type of relationship you have with each of them.”
- “What did you do on your very best day at work?
- “What does office politics mean to you, and do you see politics as your job?”
- “Tell me about a project that you led that failed. Why did it fail and what did you learn?”
Questions like these are meant to get the discussion started and allow the interviewer to ask follow-up questions. Successful candidates should clearly demonstrate that their priorities are company, team, and self — in that order. This makes it more likely that they’ll put the company’s mission above their individual interests and that they’ll set the proper example for others.
Take the incentive out of “climbing the ladder.” People don’t fight for management roles as much when management is not an end goal. Most people think “success” happens when you get the big job with the big title — that you’re not growing unless you’re moving up. At Facebook, moving into management is not a promotion. It’s a lateral move, a parallel track. Managers are there to support people and to remove barriers to getting things done. Managers focus on building a great team, creating a vision for how that team will execute its goals, and helping the people on that team develop in their careers. They are put in those positions because of their strong people skills. They aren’t there to tell teams what to do. This viewpoint has become so effective that some managers at our company have even gone so far as to stop saying things like “my team,” instead opting for things like “the team I support.”
People not familiar with this strategy might ask, “Then who is in charge?” Lest anyone think it’s a Lord of the Flies scenario, our managers still moderate, facilitate, and tie-break. But the notion that our individual contributors (ICs) shouldn’t own strategy doesn’t hold water. If you’ve hired right, your ICs should be your best minds for informing team goals and direction. (As an added bonus, your ICs are much more likely to execute effectively when the idea was theirs to begin with.)
Of course, you still have to provide a way for ICs to have career challenges and growth opportunities outside of becoming managers. We provide different opportunities for growth by empowering employees to work on new projects or in new groups when interested. This keeps ICs engaged by allowing them to broaden their areas of expertise and expand or focus their scope by moving to projects at different levels of development. If a short-term break is called for, rather than a complete switch, we have something we call “hackamonth,” where ICs can take a month to help another team on a specific project. This freedom of movement helps keep mold from growing on our teams, and it helps keep talent at the company. After all, if you don’t keep challenging talented people to grow, they will look for new opportunities outside your company.
Be open and transparent, and create opportunities for voices to be heard. It’s harder for politicians to operate if everyone is on the same page. Knowledge is power, so transparency is anathema to anyone who tries to succeed at the expense of others. Being open can be so counterintuitive to seasoned workers that a wide variety of tactics for keeping communication open have to be employed. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Make escalation “legal.” I’ve heard people say escalating to your manager or someone else’s manager is political. A lot of people avoid escalating because they think they’re going to get in trouble with their direct manager or get someone else in trouble. That’s quite simply wrong. We make escalation “legal” by making sure people know they won’t be blamed or punished for speaking up or asking hard questions. I learn a ton when someone outside my direct reports hits me with an issue. My general reaction is, “Wow, I had no idea, but let me see how I can help.” This kind of openness and directness surfaces problems early and creates an environment where dirty office tactics can’t thrive. If everyone is in the loop, no one can be saying one thing to one person and something else to another. Skip-level meetings, where employees meet with their boss’s boss, are also powerful tools in this regard. They’ll help you get a signal on a lot of things that might be filtered out by speaking solely to direct reports: team happiness, engagement, areas to improve, cross-team collaboration, and more.
- Frequent question-and-answer sessions with leadership. For years Facebook has held weekly Q&A sessions where anyone at the company can ask a question and get an answer directly from our CEO and the rest of our leadership team. These Q&As are a forum for people to get information on and hold leaders accountable for any part of the business, and they surface valuable information and feedback for our leadership team. The leaders of individual internal organizations have all-hands meetings with Q&As included for their groups. We also include a written forum using the Facebook Groups platform and some lead time for remote employees (or employees not interested in being at a mic) to submit questions, so everyone who wants to ask a question gets a chance to do it.
- Engagement surveys. Most big companies have some kind of employee engagement survey. The mistake some companies make is that they don’t act on the information they’ve gathered. We spend months responding to the feedback we get to make sure employees are fulfilled with the work they are doing. We even pulled the creation and facilitation of our survey in-house so we’d have better control over the questions and be able to understand the feedback more deeply.
Make everyone accountable, so personal bias can’t creep into decision making. People are resentful when they don’t know why decisions are made. We‘ve created processes and tools to minimize the impact of personal bias on our hiring process and our performance reviews.
In hiring, feedback for each interviewee has to be written and logged by all interviewers, and everyone on the recruiting and interview loop teams is able to see that feedback. There’s just one caveat: Interviewers can’t see others’ feedback until they’ve submitted their own. That stops the unintended “I love this person” pressure that happens when someone else on the team says he or she likes a candidate before everyone else has submitted their feedback. This is done to ensure feedback submitted is the honest opinion of the interviewer and not the feedback the interviewer thinks his or her boss wants to hear.
As for reviewing performance, we have 360-degree reviews twice a year, meaning feedback on a person’s performance comes from all directions on the org chart. All managers are reviewed by their teams, and that feedback goes to the managers’ bosses. Reviews also come in from colleagues in other functions. Many companies have these peer reviews, but many companies don’t hold managers accountable for using that feedback in the rewards process. We make sure HR business partners have access to that same performance information. That way if something stands out — good or bad — the partners can call out the information and calibrate it, regardless of whether the manager brings it up. This helps ensure managerial friendships don’t give unwarranted protective cover — concerning feedback from a peer or someone else in the org will be vetted despite the manager ignoring it. And, conversely, it makes sure conflicting personalities don’t cause unwarranted punishment for someone who is a solid performer — so a manager won’t be able to downgrade someone without reason if the rest of the person’s feedback is great. In other words, feedback is reviewed by multiple people, helping ensure it sees the light of day.
Train your leaders to effectively manage politics out of conversations. This may be the hardest thing to do, but it’s probably the most important. When things aren’t going your way, assuming “politics” is at fault is easy. Managers need to be trained to help give employees perspective when politics isn’t really the cause of the problem. When someone does cite politics as the cause of an issue, our managers dig in and try to find out what’s really going on. Simply asking, “What do you mean by that?” or “Can you tell me about the specifics of the situation?” is often a good place to start. We’ve found digging in and asking for specifics on what the person is seeing and feeling usually will help get to the root of the issue — and it’s usually not politics.
Rather, it’s often something like a lack of communication. I’ve seen lots of cases where someone goes to their manager to protest a decision — on the direction of a project, resource allocations among teams, or something similar — on the basis that the decision was driven by politics or some other personal factor. More often than not in cases like these, the leadership team and the team’s managers simply haven’t done a good enough job of explaining the decision in the context of the company’s broader priorities. When we dig in and provide that additional context, the notion that the decision was politically driven is dispelled.
Of course, every once in a while politics do crop up and teams have trouble getting along. We equip our employees with the communication skills needed to be empathetic and to solve these issues in constructive ways. In learning and development sessions offered to the whole company, we train employees on how to have hard conversations. We tell them that when they see something they don’t like, they should start by telling the other person what they saw, how they felt, and what the result of that action was. We ask the teams to avoid saying, “You did this because you want…” We tell them not to assume you understand the why — start by trying to understand the other person’s perspective. Doing so helps avoid the kinds of resentment that can lead to political behavior.
Obviously, these strategies are at their most effective when the whole company adopts them. But even if you’re at a company that doesn’t embrace these tactics, there are things you can do for the team you work with: Set the tone with the team you support when it comes to what you believe and what you stand for. Make it plain that you expect the same from them. Lead by example. And don’t hold another team or another person at a higher level of accountability than you hold your own team or yourself. Complaining about someone else when you need to clean up your own backyard creates holes where politics can grow and incite resentment.
At Facebook, we’ve found these tactics helpful in maintaining a productive company culture. Interoffice maneuvering is a distraction. Working to stop politics before it starts results in a stronger organization and empowered, motivated teams.
Jay Parikh is global head of engineering and infrastructure at Facebook.
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