Once you admit that you can’t avoid office politics, learn how to navigate them successfully. Think of it like going to the dentist to get a filling. If you put it off, eventually you’ll probably be facing a root canal which is much more painful and costly. Taking care of the cavity immediately will be less costly and local anesthetics will make it virtually painless. Learn how to play the game gracefully to lessen the pain.
Look, listen, but don’t speak
When you’re new to an office, you need to listen and watch your coworkers until you learn the hierarchy of power and the power dynamic. Who has the most power? Who can get things done? Who does everyone go to when they want to know something? While it’s difficult to avoid office gossip, try your best to not participate. Listen but don’t agree or comment when you’re added to the office grapevine. Think of this as doing surveillance. The more you know about the “animals” in the “jungle,” the better you are able to defend yourself if and when you’re attacked.
Cultivate loyalty from your attorney
If you work in a large law firm, it’s important that your supervising attorney support you in the event that you’re the victim of office politics. Cultivate loyalty from your supervising attorney by consistently supporting them. Working through lunch to meet a deadline, always having them ready for court, and supporting them in office meetings demonstrates your loyalty.
Waiting until you’re the victim of office politics to look for supporters is too late. You need to cultivate allies now so that when you need strong supporters, you’ll have them. While you must remain professional and realize that your co-workers aren’t family or close friends, you need to be friendly and encourage a close working relationship with others. Being genuinely interested in other people’s lives, generous, and helpful goes a long way to building strong office friendships. When you need allies, they’ll be there to support you.
Only act when necessary
While getting involved in office politics is sometimes unavoidable, you don’t need to contribute by giving your opinion on every issue or participating in gossip. Don’t involve yourself in disputes between other employees. You can offer support without gossiping, denigrating, or disrespecting other employees.
There will be times when office politics may affect you directly and you must act. Because office politics is mostly based on relationships, if you’ve spent time cultivating allies and creating loyalty with your supervising attorney, you’ll be one step ahead.
If you must advocate for yourself, do so in a positive manner. Your goal is not to make enemies or burn bridges, but you must protect your reputation, your job, and your firm. If a reasonable person would see your behavior as offense and it’s clear you were wrong, sincerely apologize and move on. If you can offer an olive branch to keep the peace, then do so. Never give into temptation to retaliate to negative office politics.
Avoid the “bash the boss” sessions
It’s cliché but inevitable – employees complain about their bosses. It’s tempting when your supervising attorney does something to infuriate you. They wait until the last minute to ask for expert witnesses or take credit for the brief you took weeks to research and write. Regardless of what your attorney does, don’t give into the temptation to vent to your co-workers. If other co-workers vent to you or in your presence, be careful that you don’t imply that you agree with what they’re saying. Change the subject if possible. If you can’t extract yourself from the conversation, be diplomatic and use only non-committal phrases. Save the negative remarks you have towards your supervisor for personal friends and family who won’t impact your career and job prospects.
Having a written record always works to your advantage. If you think something’s going to come back to adversely affect you, create a written record through emails, memos, and other documentation. This is also an excellent way to highlight your achievements during performance reviews and evaluations.
Don't try to change the law firm’s environment
You’re walking into an established community with existing relationships, rules, and communication styles. There’s nothing you can do to change the environment of the law firm and you shouldn’t try, especially if you’re new to the culture. You risk being viewed as a “know-it-all” who thinks they’re better than everyone in the firm. It’s better to learn how this community operates and work to find your place within the community. If you can’t adapt and find the environment to be toxic and not aligned with your values, then you need to look for new opportunities.
Tonya Pierce is a paralegal with over 24 years experience in several areas of the legal field (17 years as a bankruptcy paralegal and trustee paralegal).