November 01, 2017 Feature

Office Politics Wearing You Down? Not Anymore!

By Jamy J. Sullivan

Are you ready to jump ship—or even retire—because you’re tired of the drama at your firm? Take a deep breath and use these tips to better navigate it.

You’ve no doubt seen negative office politics play out during your career. The attorneys who repeatedly take credit for others’ work—maybe even yours. The paralegal who complains about coworkers but tries to camouflage the criticism as earnest concern. The staff member who perpetuates rumors to cast doubt about colleagues’ reputations. Or the attorney who chronically strives for praise through self-promotion.

While some office posturing is relatively harmless, even while being annoying, walking away is often the smartest move. But it’s critical that you recognize when office politicking crosses the line by becoming mean-spirited and damaging—and how to take action before it erodes your office culture and your own mental health.

A fact of life

In almost any business environment, office politics are a fact of life. Some people argue that engaging in office politics can result in positive outcomes, such as advancement opportunities or enhanced collaboration and cohesion among workers.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong when people use power and status constructively to advance the common goals of a legal team or an organization, when office politics turns personal or is used to manipulate others, it becomes a significant and disruptive force in the workplace and challenging to manage.

Ignore it? Absolutely not

Many contend that the sooner you turn a blind eye to others’ political machinations, the better off you’ll be. But is that the best answer?

In my opinion, absolutely not. Left unchecked, chronic office politicking can drive significant disruption and damage within the legal workplace on many fronts:

  • Office morale—Even a single individual who continuously works office politics to advance their self-interests can negatively impact co-workers’ job satisfaction and have a harmful effect on overall staff morale.
  • Productivity—Poor office morale can trigger other serious disruptions, including lower productivity. When people are upset or feel threatened, they often lose motivation and self-confidence. They become less engaged, and their work and productivity inevitably suffer.
  • Employee turnover—Another ripple effect is high turnover. When employees are dissatisfied— especially if they don’t see the firm taking action to change things for the better—they’ll seek job opportunities with an employer that promotes a healthy and supportive work environment.
  • Reputation and clients—While office politics may create serious disruptions within the workplace, they can also have far-reaching and damaging impact externally. They can weaken your own and your firm’s brand and reputation, your client satisfaction, and your ability to engage new clients and recruit top legal professionals.

Develop a strategy

Recognizing the signs of office politics is relatively easy. Dealing with it is another story.

If you’re among your firm’s leadership, by the very nature of your responsibilities, you must take a broad view to identify the impact office politics is having and decide what actions are required to ensure the overall health and success of your organization.

On the other hand, if you’re “just” a partner trying to do your job with minimal stress and little drama, your response to office politics is more personally focused. It’s a matter of deciding whether you can manage the political office dynamics to succeed in your job and continue to advance your career, or if not, choose to walk away.

Here are some strategies that can help you navigate politics:

  • Build alliances and avoid cliques. Develop connections with people at all levels of your organization, and strengthen all of your relationships based on trust and respect.
  • Don’t get involved when colleagues compete for power. While you shouldn’t ignore the inevitable power plays you’ll see among lawyers, stay clear of their actions. If two colleagues have a clearly adversarial relationship, don’t take sides. Instead, remain objective and focused on your work.
  • Showcase your successes, but don’t brag. It’s important that your firm’s management team is aware of your successes, but inform them of those achievements diplomatically. When one of them asks about your progress on a project or case, let them know about the key accomplishments you’ve achieved or an approach you’ve undertaken to advance your client’s objectives.
  • Don’t gossip. Decline to engage in office scuttlebutt, whether you’re in or outside the office; during casual, social work-related events; or over dinner with a colleague or friend. Gossip is one of the most common forms of office politics; participating in it will only damage your credibility and reputation.
  • Consider integrity a priority: Act professionally and respectfully, and maintain your integrity in everything you do; stay true to yourself, and never compromise your values. Don’t be one of those people who are willing to win at all costs. Strong character and credibility are key components in a long, successful career.
  • Don’t let colleagues hijack credit for your work. If this happens, give yourself time to objectively evaluate the situation. And then set the record straight diplomatically. You might start with, “To clarify, what (offender’s name) is trying to explain is that . . .” and then clearly describe your participation in the project or work. Going forward, find opportunities to discuss your achievements or results with those who matter.

Is it time to move on?

More than half (56 percent) of the workers my company interviewed said involvement in office politics is at least somewhat necessary to get ahead.

But what constitutes a “normal” amount of political maneuvering? Obviously, the answer is highly subjective, but it’s a question you’ve probably wrestled with when you’ve considered whether politics may be permanently damaging your career.

If you’re trying to decide whether you should stay at your firm or if leaving is the right choice, here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • To succeed at your firm, do you need to compromise your work ethic or integrity?
  • Do you need to employ questionable tactics to make yourself look good?
  • Do you trust your firm’s leadership and colleagues, or have you lost respect for them because of their office politics?
  • Is work-related stress impacting your physical health?
  • Do you start to feel anxious on Sunday evenings as you face Monday morning re-entry?
  • Deep down, do you instinctively know it’s time to move on?

Even if you answer “yes” to many of the questions above, you should seek guidance from a trusted colleague or former mentor before making a final decision. Discuss the issues that are prompting you to consider resigning, what you like and don’t like about your firm and office culture, and your goals. This exchange may help clarify whether you can initiate strategies to improve your current work situation or if leaving is the right choice.

Understanding your law firm’s political landscape is important in successfully navigating office dynamics. Stay attuned to undercurrents, but don’t allow yourself to get drawn into circumstances that could compromise your reputation or credibility. Let diplomacy and respect guide your actions, and you’ll be able to perform fairly, honorably, and with integrity.

Jamy J. Sullivan

Jamy J. Sullivan is executive director of Robert Half Legal, a legal staffing and consulting solutions firm with locations in major North American and international markets. She holds a law degree and has more than 15 years' experience in legal staffing, training, leadership, and consulting services.