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Understanding office politics

Written by: Ruth Fenton
Published on: 3 Nov 2016

Workplace politics can be a minefield. One comment can make a massive impact on your success at a firm. But how do you play the politics game?

People who understand the psychology behind people’s thoughts and actions can easily influence other to get what they want. Influential players develop emotional intelligence through learning about psychology, micro-expressions, language patterns and body language. This allows them to pick up clues about what people are thinking and feeling without the person saying a word.

Here are five key factors you need to consider when playing the politics game.

Key Players
Who is really calling the shots? Often it’s not who you think. For example a keen-to-please partner may be dictated to by juniors and secretaries who end up holding the power. This is why it is always wise to get along with people you don’t particularly like as they can be so influential and really enhance or mess up your chance of success at a firm.

What is the culture of the firm? Are people seen as equals? Do people speak up if they are not happy about something? Often people don’t speak up for fear of losing their job. The fact is, many firms would like people to speak up more and put forward ideas on how the firm can work more effectively and save costs. Management might not want to hear it, but they need to keep up with the times and make sure morale is high. It is always good to build rapport with a key decision maker who is receptive to new ideas.

People’s actions can be explained by a simple model called the human needs model.

InRuth Fenton a nutshell, people have six basic human needs; significance, certainty, connection, variety, growth and contribution.

Knowing which things people value most highly will explain their actions. For example, a partner who values certainly (predictable results) may disagree with a lawyer who likes to gamble with an outcome.

Peoples’ needs drive their behaviour. For example, a partner may shout at people to meet their need for significance, as they feel this is the only way people will take notice of them. When people are stressed and tired they tend to go into survival mode. When emotions are high, intelligence is low so they tend to make poor snap decisions and blame others for their mistakes. Letting things wash over you is often a good tactic.

Ruth Fenton

Rules and values
Everyone has their own unique set of rules and values. These are instilled from a very young age. When our rules or values are challenged we may become defensive. So taking a step back and thinking ‘Why do I think that way?’ can be useful.

For example, someone might have the rule “I don’t like dogs” but when they dig down and find the real reason it might be a rule they have had imposed on them and they have just gone along with it. On re-consideration people might change their rules and values, but you need to make sure they can “save face”.

People regularly change their mind because they will do whatever they think is best in that particular moment. They perceive the other alternative to be more painful. That is why with hindsight or more information they may have acted or said something different.

Hidden agendas
Humans who are significance-driven will act very different from people who connection-driven. Many lawyers are out to win at all costs – they often have significance and certainty as their top needs. They may manipulate and mislead people as this fulfils their need to feel superior. Others are extra-nice to people, as they know this will get them what they want.

When dealing with difficult people think about what their end goal is and how they are behaving to get there. People are creatures of habit and behaving a certain way in the past has got them results, what is why they are doing it again. If you break their pattern and suggest things which are more aligned with their rules and values and seems a better option personally for them, it is easy to win people over to your way of thinking.

Ruth Fenton is a solicitor, executive leadership coach and communications expert who specialises in helping junior and mid-level lawyers excel in their careers.