Office Politics: You're D***** If You Do, and You're D***** If You Don't
By Chere Estrin
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.
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. 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). U.S. executives say they waste 19% of their time – at least one day a
week – dealing with company politics, according to a survey of 150 executives of major U.S. firms by Office
Team, a California-based staffing organization. Executives said they spent a bulk of time dealing with internal
conflicts, rivalry disputes and other volatile situations.
With competition rising for sought-after positions, it is crucial for those seeking to rise in their career, to be
aware of the struggle, its purpose and how it operates. Promotions and the decision to keep you on board during
turbulent times are based as much on loyalty to the firm and its supervisors and being politically astute, as they
are 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 organization operates and who operates it, the unwritten
policies as well as the 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 politics who has been the beneficiary of some savvy actions.
Here are a few drawbacks to that can result for not being politically savvy. You may be perceived as:
v Not promotable;
v A loner, not a team-player – a critical skill needed in law firms;
v Lacking career-management skills;
v Untrustworthy of confidences and critical 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. Not 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 individua
l 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 office
· 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.
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” 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 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) 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 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.
5. Perform at a level beyond reproach. In office politics, negative stereotyping can have a devastating
effect on how fast and far you go. For example, if the tax 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-no.
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.
9. 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 Co-Founding member and Managing Administrator of OLP. She has written 10 books in the
legal field and hundreds of articles.