The truth about workplaces is that they are 90% cooperation and 10% warfare. It's the 10% you need to worry about. HR can do a disservice to employees in encouraging a naively trusting attitude which puts them at risk. Let’s think about how we can teach employees a savvy and helpful approach to navigating workplace politics.
The good news
The good news is that most of the time people are astonishingly cooperative. The employees who don’t have this happy experience of frequent cooperation are probably doing something wrong—such as being unduly negative, having unrealistic expectations or never reciprocating. However, there is a sadder kind of employee, the one who naively expected 100% cooperation and was crushed when this openness hurts them, and now, won’t trust anyone ever again.
The bad news
Over the course of a career employees are bound to have bad experiences such as having something sensitive shared in confidence told to their boss; having other people take credit for their work; having co-workers say bad things about them to their manager or co-workers. We like to say that employees should be open about things like mental illness, however, given that this may be used against them, they are best to be cautious about who they tell and what they say. Similarly, if an employee screwed up with a prospective customer, but no one knows, then the savvy employee will think twice before admitting this to a colleague who might be tempted to divulge the secret. It's all a matter of risk management. The more potentially damaging something is, the more care the employee should take is what they share with others.
How to we encourage cooperation, while warning about the risks?
Jeffrey Pfeffer teaches a course in power in the Stanford University MBA program. The course talks about the realities of using power and protecting oneself from power. It’s not always a pretty story; it talks about that 10% of organizational life that is warfare. Some people think it’s best not to mention this darker side for fear it will encourage people to do the wrong thing. Pfeffer’s belief is that all the other MBA courses presume everyone is working together for the good of the organization. His is the one course that warns people about the darker side of organizational life. The goal is not to turn students into ruthless schemers, just to be savvy enough not to set themselves up to be burned. Since you don’t want to put up posters saying “Don’t trust your coworkers” how do you deliver the message? If you have mentoring networks or buddy system encourage the mentors and buddies to touch on the issue of organizational politics as they exist in the organization. A little inoculation will help protect employees from the disease of undue naiveite.