Team politics and self-reflection in start-ups

What role do start-up leaders play in developing inter-personal relationships in distributed teams?

Warning: Office Politics Ahead


“Team politics and personal shortcomings are related.
Where personal weaknesses or a lack of superior integrity starts, politics begin.”

If you’re working in a distributed (and often virtual) team, you may have noticed this: everybody thinks they are doing their best and yet at the same time they are concerned about protecting their backs. It may start subtly and not be overly obvious, but when nearing performance evaluations for instance, things can heat up pretty quickly.

You may think this does not matter much in a startup or if team politics occur early on, you’ve just picked the wrong team members. But in my experience, “politics” is a human phenomenon – nobody is completely free of them and it’s not only about whom you pick but also about how you inter-relate with them.

Geographically dispersed teams face special challenges

When, for instance, you have two teams working in two different countries with their people not knowing each other personally, and you and your project are (seemingly!) the only link between them, then you’ve set the stage for a world of startup politics. Assumptions over distance and through lack of personal knowledge and character flourish much more easily than when you’re sitting next to each other in the same office or have been out and about together on a personal level at least  a few times.

Even if you have recruited those rare types of people who are disciplined and focused on maintaining their integrity and have a basic positive belief in the other person, there is always that little element of doubt that creeps into each mind as long as they are focused on protecting their backs or are focused on being right rather than  just making things happen. Usually the more your company grows, the more politics become a part of the everyday equation.

So in the teams that I’m a leader of, small or large, if there is even the slightest hint such things are going on repeatedly in any of our (especially distributed) teams, I’ll  be on high alert before it becomes a bad habit for some or many in the group, because this is a habit that startups absolutely can’t afford: it’s bad for morale, productivity and progress.

So welcome to the world of politics!

To address this issue as a leader, first of all one should know the role one plays in the entire picture, i.e. the place you have within the ranks of politics in your company. Because like it or not you set the acceptable tone and in the case of turning a blind eye, you are the one that implicity condones unacceptable behaviour.

Where you are in the political ranks of your company is sometimes quite tricky to figure out, because let’s face it: the higher up the ladder you are, you’re more naturally going to be “right” – even if you’re wrong. In such a situation it is very important to have access to some objective feedback from others (your Co-Founder for instance) to evaluate your role, as it is paramount to analyse and know oneself, before one even starts trying to fix team related politics. For those who don’t have access to objective feedback, there are some techniques that can help to figure out which role you’re filling in your company’s political games.

So what are these techniques?

I have a practice that was commonly used in my piano playing days. You record your interactions (performance) and review them. When reviewing this recording of your performance, you suddenly see yourself from at least 3 views:

  1. You remember – yes, I did what I came here to do (and maybe some details like “I did it well, not so well” etc.). You also remember – yeah, I knew I missed that, but it already happened. So this is your memory playing / reliving the moments of the performance again in front of you.
  2. You acknowledge – yes, I came here to do this, but -bummer- I had missed it. Note that until the moment you watched that video / heard the recording, you were not aware you missed something(!) – this in itself makes watching recordings of performances a very worthwhile lesson for anybody being part of an event like this.
  3. You suddenly see yourself not only in your shoes, but also in the shoes of the audience. Did they understand what point you wanted to make there or which musical phrase you wanted to bring across? Were you aware that at certain moments, the different highlights of your performance were bridged by boring lows of longer periods than necessary? How does this recording make you feel from a visitor/audience point of view? Was it boring? Exciting? Refreshing? Interesting?

One could look at 1) as being the subjective, personal view you’re in, at 2) as being the neutral feedback of genuine friend or great Co-Founder and at 3) as being a summary of everybody elses situation (i.e. an investor, employee, the person or people you’re dealing with in relation to the political issue).

The fact is that by the practise of the above mentioned technique, especially for 3), you can learn more about yourself, by analysing yourself, as anybody else could possibly tell you about you, even your best friend or Co-Founder. Which brings me back to the actual topic: politics.

As I mentioned earlier, first mentally (or physically) recording and analysing your own ‘performance’ on such a political stage is something which will help you to understand where you are really at. After that – and depending on your countries privacy laws and regulations, you could record the entire conversation with the individuals involved – for personal evaluation purposes only and after letting them know you’re doing it.

Let’s see what happens when you do that:

Just by recording yourself, you’ll learn how you think/feel or even react (by saying or doing something) when somebody in your team is saying something good or bad about somebody else in your team (or yourself for that matter). During the conversation you’re normally not likely to notice this in a neutral or objective way. But if you listen to yourself afterwards, you’ll know (or should know) yourself well enough to determine if you (re)act according to your personal issues (i.e. a grudge against a person or unhappy with yourself or something), to protect your integrity, to be fair and right to all or simply to ‘get things done’ (a topic in its own right).

I believe it is very important to learn about and, as completely as possible, understand ones own motives first, before venturing into analysing other people’s lives (if one should actually ever do that!).

Once you’ve determined where on the stage you’re standing, it is time to listen to what others have to say. To give a simple and frequently recurring example: one person A might suspect  person B of talking about them behind their back. But by talking to that  person B you may know – possibly even while listening to the recording – very clearly, that this is not the case. Quite the opposite in fact – the moment you’d mention something bad about A, B is protecting them – either on a personal or a professional level.

By listening to the subtleties in conversations from a neutral place outside the conversation, you can find out a lot about politics, yourself and where things go wrong between people that affect the outcome of your project.

It is this objective review that allows you to change your performance (interactions) in the future and to proactively ad
dress issues you have found. The more people within the organization are open to such practice of communicative self-reflection and analysis, the easier it is to avoid the painful process of sorting out office politics once they have occurred.

Or, with the words of a very wise man, many years ago:

The person of superior integrity
does not insist upon his integrity;

For this reason, he has integrity.

The person of inferior integrity

never loses sight of his integrity;

For this reason, he lacks integrity.

Tao Te King

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