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Refusing to Play Office Politics? You Might Want to Rethink That.

It’s a dirty word.  I’ll be surprised if it gets printed here so I’ll whisper:  office politics….  (Shhhhhhh!)  Your mother may have told you that nice professionals don’t do that sort of thing. Gossip

Anyone who tells me they “avoid office politics” is really telling me that they are heavy into the game.  Politics are an integral part of the world of work. Truth be told, what’s really behind office politics, however, is fear. Fear of what could, might or does happen.

No one I know likes to admit that they play office politics or worse yet, that they are pretty good at it. Employees often complain that they are not involved or they just want to do their jobs.  Let me share a time-saving technique:  Do not waste one second commiserating about the horrible politics in your firm.  There is no gathering of three or more persons that is free of politics.

Politics come with the office (or cubicle).  In a 2012 study from staffing firm Robert Half International nearly 60 percent of workers said involvement in office politics is at least somewhat necessary to get ahead. Another survey from OfficeTeam, a California staffing organization, stated 19% of executives wasted their time – at least one day a week – dealing with company politics.  These execs said they spent a good deal of time dealing with internal conflicts, rivalry disputes and other similar situations.

With competition rising for jobs, it is necessary to be aware of how politics can operate. Sometimes, why you keep your job is as much based upon loyalty to the firm and your supervisors as it is on performance.  Staying out of the game is an option.  Not playing the game is a strategy for dealing with the game.  Political skill requires knowledge of how the firm operates and who operates it, along with unwritten policies and written rules.  People who don’t play and don’t get kudos give politics a bad rap.  However, I have never heard anyone complain about office politics who has been the beneficiary of its actions.

 Here are a few drawbacks resulting in not being politically savvy.  You may be perceived as:

  • Not a player who can be promoted;
  • A loner, not a team-player – an essential skill in law firms;
  • Lacking career-management skills;
  • Untrustworthy of confidences and not able to receive important information.

I’m not talking about cutthroat office politics – the stab-you-in-the-back-don’t-dare-meet-me-in-a-dark-alley-I’ll-take-credit-for-your-every-idea-gossipy politics.  That’s not politics.  That’s dirty play.  Never a good idea.

I’m referring to knowing how the game is played that in turn allows you a good chance of competing competently with those who undertake the lifestyle of cubicle warfare.  “Politics is really the play of human interactions at work that can make your job easier or more difficult,” write co-authors Ronna Lichtenburg and Gene Stone in Work Would be Great If It Weren’t for the People.  “Being a good office politician means you know how to turn individual agendas into common goals.”

How can you be a good office politician?  Here are a few starters:

  1. Politics are about power. Just as there is no real definition of the practice of law, there’s no standard definition of power.  You need to pinpoint the factors considered “powerful” in your firm.  Blaine Pardoe, author of Cubicle Warfare:  Self-Defense Strategies for Today’s Hypercompetitive Workplace provides examples of how firms measure power:

    • Headcount – how many people report to one manager
    • Office location such as a corner
    • Company-paid perks such as club memberships; first-class travel
    • High-profile project assignments
    • Merit bonuses
    • Amount of budget
    • Most powerful computer or system
    • Individuals who receive a high degree of acceptance by upper management for failures.

Add to the above: paid association dues; whether you are invited to firm events; a window office; whether you are invited to socialize with attorneys and supervisors; level of employee that reports to you; where your parking spot is located; if you are given a laptop; and whether you have a firm credit card.

  1. Learn from the past. The unofficial history of your firm is important.  How were past employees rewarded?  Who was a hero?  Who was fired? Why? 

  2. Don’t ignore (or believe everything you hear from) the grapevine. Although the grapevine is an unofficial communication channel, it can be a rich source of information.  It’s a good idea to become friends with people tapped in.  Sometimes it’s the “sacred cow” - the person who has been with the firm 25 years or the receptionist with her ear to ground. 

  3. Start with your boss. It’s your job to make managing or senior partners look good.  Know what is expected and find out how to add value.  If moving up the ladder is a priority, find out if your a) paralegal department is profitable b) results are measured c) boss has the power to make decisions that affect your goals, and d) boss is perceived favorably.  If you’re tied in with a loser, chances are pretty good you are not going to be first for promotion.

  4. Find out where the power resides. Promotions and survival are usually based on loyalty.  Identify where the power resides and select the winning side.  If possible, become a part of that department or work in connection with to it. Find out who the conduit to the power is. It may be that using the conduit can get you to the power.

  5. Perform at a level beyond reproach. In office politics, negative stereotyping can have a devastating affect on how fast and far you go.  For example, if the probate department is not favored, chances of succeeding are limited.

  6. Be careful how you socialize. The firm is not your family.  Tread carefully.  Opinions are based on observations.  Avoid getting involved with conflict as it is very easy to get labeled as someone who does not get along with others.  Dating a colleague on the job is something that should probably be avoided.  In fact, make that a no-go.

  7. Avoid cliques. Managers tend to view cliques as detrimental to teamwork and feel that they often undermine authority.  The ultimate result of a clique is that it may affect your raises. 

  8. Cultivate alliances in high places. Insulate yourself from some of the effects of nasty office politics and get advice on how to cope.

       10.  Don’t get consumed with office politics. Politics can be necessary but be aware it can have a negative impact. Participate positively as a point of survival but avoid becoming
               consumed.

Don’t be a novice at the oldest game in corporate history.  Philosopher Plato knew the importance of managing the perils of politics.  His advice?  “Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.”  Amen to that.

Chere Estrin is the CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing and CEO of Paralegal Knowledge Institute, an online training organization. She is the author of 10 books on legal careers and has written her blog, The Estrin Report since 2005 in addition to hundreds of articles. Chere is a Los Angeles Paralegal Association lifetime achievement recipient, Co-Founding Member of the International Practice Management Association and President and Co-Founding Member of the Organization of Legal Professionals. She has been interviewed by Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Daily Journal and other publications. Talk to her at chere@estrinlegalstaffing.com.

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