Aristotle once said, “Man is either a political animal or an outcast like a bird which flies alone.”
Like it or not, office politics are a fundamental part of the legal workplace. Although you may not like them, you try your best to ignore them, and refuse to involve yourself in them; the fact remains that you really can’t completely avoid office politics. What is often referred to as corporate culture often really describes the positive and negative aspects of office politics, or “the way things are done around here.”
Bad politics, good politics
Bad office politics – which some employees use to advance themselves by any means necessary – are relatively easy to spot. The most common ways used to describe bad office politics include wrangling, sucking up, backstabbing, manipulating, and gossiping. Unfortunately, people are often much less familiar with good office politics: professional advancement that isn’t pursued at the expense of other people or the organization.
According to the Harvard Business Review, good office politics involves effective social skills in four important areas:
- The ability to read other people, understand how others see you, and how your behavior affects that of your colleagues.
- The capacity to convince others and successfully affect how and what they think. This involves taking into account the agendas of others and then framing your message to fit within the preferences of your coworkers.
- Well-honed networking skills that will encourage a diverse coalition of coworkers to unite behind your cause.
- The power to appear honest, open, and forthright to others. How sincere you think you are is much less important than how others view you.
Research seems to bear out the theory that effective social skills will enhance not only your advancement potential, but also your job performance, influence, and leadership skills. Several studies have found that no matter what your career, political skill has proven to be the best overall indicator of job performance and failing to master positive office politics can derail even the smartest, most honest, and hardworking person in the room.
How to play the game, without selling your soul
Now that you’ve admitted (hopefully) that you can’t avoid office politics, you need to learn how to navigate them gracefully. Here are some tips:
Do your homework.
If you’re new to a legal workplace, your rule should be look and listen before you speak. Take care to learn the hierarchy of the firm, who wields the power, who gets things done, and who everyone seems to go to when they have an issue.
Build your team.
Don’t wait until negative office politics leave you on the fence with no one in your corner. Try to be friendly and encourage a good working relationship with everyone. While you wait for natural alliances to develop, remain professional and remember that these are your colleagues, not close family or friends.
Earn your attorney’s trust.
In the event you become the target of office politics, it’s important that your supervising attorney has your back. To accomplish this, you will need to develop a strong partnership with them by performing your work at a very high level, being willing to stay late or work a weekend to meet a deadline (at least once in a while), and demonstrating your loyalty to them in staff meetings whenever possible. While you don’t have to be “besties,” you need to have a professional working relationship.
Mind your own business.
Although getting pulled into office politics can be unavoidable, try not to provide your opinion when it is unnecessary, don’t participate in gossip, and avoid getting into the middle of disputes that don’t concern you. It is possible to offer support without getting into someone else’s issues, so MYOB.
Avoid boss bashing.
Just as it is tempting for people to complain about their partners when they get together with friends, paralegals and other legal support personnel are often tempted to vent about their bosses to colleagues. If someone vents to you, try not to give the impression that you agree with what they are saying and attempt to change the conversation. Save your bashing sessions for friends and other third parties who can’t negatively affect your career.
Don’t try to reinvent the wheel.
When you first started your job, you joined an established community with an existing workplace culture. While there’s likely nothing you can do to completely change the environment of the law firm where you work, it could be worth your while to learn how the office functions and work to find your place there. If you’re unable to fit in and find the environment too toxic for your tastes, it might be time to look for a new opportunity.
Do you know of some other ways that legal professionals can deal with office politics? Tell us about them in the comments!