After working in several offices over the past 25 years, I’ve learned that office politics exist in every office from the small single attorney law firm to the largest corporate firm. You can’t get away from them nor can you bury your head in the sand feigning ignorance.
I watched my parents work very hard when I was growing up. A strong work ethic was important to them and they instilled that same value in me. Teachers, professors, and instructors reinforced this value when I was in school by rewarding hard work and dedication with excellent grades. In many ways, school teaches us that if we work hard and do what’s expected, we’ll be rewarded for our hard work.
Unfortunately, the work place isn’t the same. While hard work, talents, and smarts help to propel your career to the next level, you must also be able to navigate office politics successfully and understand why they exist, how to use office dynamics to your benefit, and when to walk away.
Understanding Office Politics
If you work long enough in the legal field, you’ll likely experience the negative side of office politics. It can be in the form of mean-spirited gossip or losing a promotion because a supervisor claimed your hard work for their own. (On a side note, don’t confuse office politics with bullying. Make sure you understand where the line is and how to confront someone who’s crossing it). Regardless of the experiences you encounter, embracing office politics for what they really are can help you navigate the waters to do more than simply stay afloat.
Office politics can be reduced to knowing how to get things done within the law firm. You may think you can rise above office politics by working hard and minding your own business, however, even if you try to avoid it you can be injured in the crossfire. While you can’t control what other employees do, you can control your reactions.
Understand the power dynamic in your office. It can be as simple as seniority deciding who has more power but it could also be something else such as a friendship outside of the office. Many times, the source of office politics is rooted in who has the power and who is coveting that power. Competition is a large motivator for office politics. When it comes to promotions, bonuses, raises, or other rewards, it can cause some people to adopt treacherous forms of office politics. The co-worker you thought was a good friend quickly turns into an enemy when a new position or corner office is up for grabs. Sharlyn Lauby outlines the 7 Types of Power in the Workplace in her blog, HR bartender:
- Coercive power is associated with those who are in a position to punish others and the resulting fear of the consequences of not doing what has been asked of them.
- Connection power is based on who you know. A person with this type of power has the ear of other powerful people within the organization.
- Expert power comes from one’s acclaimed skill or accomplishment.
- Someone with valuable or important information possesses informational power.
- Legitimate or positional power relates to a person’s title and job responsibilities.
- Someone well-liked and respected can have referent power (an ability to influence through loyalty, respect, admiration, or a desire to gain approval).
- Reward power is based on a person’s ability to bestow rewards often come in the form of job assignments, schedules, pay, or benefits.
Emotions and personal factors often play a large role. Some employees become so emotionally invested in their job that they protect their position at all costs. You see this many times in paralegals, legal assistants, and secretaries who have been with an attorney for many years. They believe they are indispensable and that they’re the only ones who can take care of “their” attorney. As a new employee, be aware of this dynamic and come from an angle of wanting to understand the firm’s protocols and processes so you can do your job better.
Conflicts in personal career goals and ambitions can also create tension between employees as each person works to accomplish their own goals. Imagine a scenario where one paralegal is allowed to work from home every afternoon for the last two hours of the day because their kids get home from school and they need to be at the bus stop. Paralegals without children may feel slighted. If a certified paralegal is allowed to take time off to attend CLEs (and the law firm pays for them) while non-certified paralegals aren’t given this opportunity, it can create a sour situation.
Office politics can be good
Regardless of why office politics exist, they can work in your favor if you understand why they happen and how to use them to your advantage. Once you admit that you can’t avoid office politics, you can concentrate on ways to handle them that give you an advantage. While there are some people who will do anything to “win,” you should remain true to your core values. It may be tempting to retaliate if someone attacks you, but it rarely benefits you in the long run. In my next post, I’ll cover the best ways to navigate office politics.