I wish I knew… to avoid office politics

Claudia McGarva

By Claudia McGarva

When the Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889, many locals hated it. They called for it to be pulled down. It was an eyesore. It was structurally flawed. The tower was almost scrapped a decade later, until the French realised it was a nifty radio tower during the First World War. Now, the tower attracts about 7 million visitors a year and is a national symbol. The Eiffel Tower endured ridicule, scorn, threats of destruction, widespread acceptance and finally, pride.

It is scary to think how many ideas are nipped in the bud before they have the chance to grow: ideas that were abandoned because the majority didn’t accept them. During my legal career, I’ve worked at organisations that decided to pioneer a new way of doing business, or at least flirt with the idea of a new world order. These organisations either had an existing reputation of being trailblazers, or had acquired a new head honcho who could clearly see the firm’s flaws before they became a part of the problem. Either way, the challenge to these organisations was not whether their proposal for a new billing structure or deciding to expand their areas of practice was a bad idea. It was clear these organisations had done their research and were responding to a need in the market. No, their greatest obstacle was their existing staff and their opposition.

Staff opposition was usually on the basis of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. Ideas of change and responding to client need were immediately dismissed as wanting to change for the sake of change. At times, colleagues became toxic. When I was a newly admitted practitioner, I found disgruntled colleagues bailed me up in the kitchen and tried to ‘get in my ear’ about how the firm was going to hell in a hand basket. I now assume it was because as a junior practitioner, you are learning about everything, including office politics, and you are an easy target – impressionable, probably still polite to your colleagues and non-threatening.

As a relatively new practitioner, this can be a difficult position to be in. You may be new to office politics and get bogged down in the muck. It can be exhausting, particularly if you have billable targets and colleagues want to use your time complaining about these changes. I’m not saying there aren’t appropriate times to debrief with colleagues about an organisational decision (which can also be of great value to an organisation). The issue is whether that conversation is constructive – does it offer valid criticism about a new decision? Does it test the idea? Does it understand the need for change?

I think about the time wasted engaging in these conversations, and the effect it had on my morale. It can be damaging, exhausting and debilitating. It may lead to an unnecessary premature departure from an organisation that may have otherwise been a good fit. It can also mean you miss out on being part of an exciting development, which in time, may be a source of pride in your career.