How A New CEO Can Repair A Culture Dominated By Office Politics

Expert Panel® Forbes Coaches Council

Even a strong company culture can turn toxic when people start engaging in negative behavior. However, gauging the health of an organization can be challenging for someone who is on the outside looking in. When a newly installed CEO notices that office politics seem to have grown out of control, threatening not only employee engagement but also retention, it’s time for the new leader to step up and find ways to solve the underlying issues.

Once damaging office politics have been identified as the likely culprit, it’s up to company leadership to restore balance, trust and open communication. Below, 14 members of Forbes Coaches Council explore what a CEO facing this kind of challenge can do to find the root cause of the dysfunction and reinforce the foundations of a once-thriving workplace community.

Featured members share ways for a new CEO to repair a culture dominated by office politics.
Forbes Coaches Council members share ways for a new CEO to repair a culture dominated by office politics.

1. Acknowledge The Issue And Plan A Transformation

The CEO should acknowledge the issue and plan to achieve a customer-focused transformation. Acknowledging it sends a message about the CEO’s values. Then, embark upon a program of collaboration to achieve a high-performance culture. Depending on the nature, size and distribution of the workforce, the latest artificial intelligence tools can align teams on an agreed-upon action plan/roadmap. – Richard Chiumento, The Rialto Consultancy

2. Articulate And Embed Values

One approach to fixing the culture is to carefully and collaboratively articulate and embed the values to support and create policies and coaching interventions for leaders and managers to drive the sustainability of the desired culture. This fosters leadership buy-in, which motivates them to model company values and behaviors in a way that will inspire and influence the workforce. – Adaora Ayoade, EZ37 Solutions

3. Leverage The Transition Period

Leveraging what’s available could be a great place to start. Leverage the transition period to identify key influencers in the system and understand their aspirations. Seeking ideas for positive change one-to-one can help in understanding the burning issues, helps build goodwill and communicates intentions. Provide opportunities that can create accountability for results and culture. – Jaya Bhateja, Abhyudaya Consulting Services

4. Press The Reset Button

There can be so many reasons why cultures run amok, but it generally starts with leadership that is self-serving instead of organization-serving, especially when office politics shows up. The new CEO needs to call it out, examine what has caused it and set the expectation that different behaviors are expected and will be rewarded. – Evan Roth, Roth Consultancy International, LLC.

5. Practice Emotional Intelligence

The newly installed CEO must first practice the art of emotional intelligence. This helps to be aware of what the issue is, the cause and how to handle it without getting mixed up in the confusion. Once this is at work, remind the entire workforce about the organization’s core values and how they can return to them. Culture is corrected when all members of the workforce can remind themselves of the core values and the need to abide by them. – Akin Akinpelu, Akin Akinpelu International

6. Create Alignment Through Clear Communication

Create alignment through clear, consistent and transparent communication. In all meetings, start with the goals of the organization and the key points to discuss, and close with clear actions, assignments and due dates. Engage others’ ideas and data in decisions. Take as much subjectivity out of the system as possible through organized and effective communication. These simple practices will stabilize the team. – Bobbie Goheen, Synthesis Management Group

7. Have A Round Table Meeting

I had this situation in a company where I was the new CEO. Sales and accounting were literally not speaking to one another and on different floors as well. I immediately called a town hall meeting of all concerned, went around the table, explained the value of each to the other and, finally, told them that if they didn’t start cooperating together, we would all fail—no paycheck for anyone! – Ash Varma, Varma & Associates

8. Gain Perspective From Existing Executives

Get curious. Ask existing executive team members what they see, hear and understand for a broader perspective. Engage employees in a conversation to define the essential qualities of the desired work environment. Immediately address behavior that does not support a strong and thriving community. Engage the executive team to create a corporate vision with the desired culture in mind. – Gina Lavery, Gina Lavery Inc.

9. Get Clear On The Company’s ‘Why’ And Its Destination

When office politics are out of control, it means the team doesn’t share a purpose or a commitment to achieving it through their results. A leader in this situation needs to get clear on why the company exists (its purpose) through listening to the stories that make up the company’s DNA and setting a destination (the intended results) that inspires and focuses everyone toward something greater. – Steve Haase, Hypergrowth Coaching, Inc.

10. Be The Change And Model Desired Behavior

Be the change and model the behavior you want to see. Set clear expectations with the leadership team and people leaders. Find other centers of influence within the organization to help champion the shift. You also have to be firm and swift in coaching and/or removing the people perpetuating toxic behavior from the culture you’re trying to build. – Shelley Willingham, Douglas Alexandra |The Diversity Movement

11. Make A Public Example Of Negative Behavior

As a newly appointed CEO, it is imperative to act decisively after learning about the organizational dynamics. If there are “out of control” office politics, a combination of a “stick-and-carrot” approach should be used. Fire the offenders and make a public example of their negative behavior. Simultaneously, identify exemplary people and behaviors and elevate those leaders. – Ben Levitan, Cedalion Partners

12. Be Visible And Engaged

Spend a good portion of your time connecting with people across the organization to build rapport and trust. Clearly state your values and goals for the way forward. Address conflict by listening, reflecting and challenging the status quo. Identify the key players and possible champions. Use the core values as foundations, if evident, or as a starting point for change. – Susan Murray, Clearpath Leadership

13. Interview Your Front-Line Staff

Spend the time on the ground interviewing your front-line staff. These conversations will deliver the most insightful perspectives on the key challenges contributing to office politics. The transformation will need to start from the top with the leadership team exhibiting and demonstrating a unified approach to solving the core challenges and eliminating destructive behaviors. – Stuart Andrews, SMA Consulting

14. Be Courageous And Clean Out The Rot

Be courageous and do what any leader with integrity should—clean out the rot. I appreciate that it’s easier said than done. However, in my lived experience, office politics can not only destroy the business but also human lives. It contributes to serious mental health issues that must never be tolerated. I say build a new leadership team if necessary, and create a new culture that people will fight for. – Jon Michail, Image Group International