Navigating The Whitewater of Internal Politics

by Phyllis Weiss Haserot - Whether or not we like to acknowledge it, "politics" are a workplace fact of life for people at all levels and a possibility whenever more than one (or two) persons gather in a firm, team, group - whether temporarily or longer term.

"Internal politics" is both a term that makes some people uncomfortable (it was suggested by one partner that I remove it from a brochure on "preparing new partners") and a subject of much angst and attention on the part of even senior professionals. Too often the issues are kept under the surface rather than brought out into the sun to be addressed and resolved. They must be talked about because they greatly hinder productivity and motivation.

However the workplace opportunities for clash, controversy, jealously, wounded self-esteem and just quiet resentment as well as ingrained tendencies (often learned behavior that can be unlearned) to guard information and protect turf mean "political intrigues" are ever present in most organizations, even those priding themselves on "collegiality."

Much of the difficulty is tied to inadequate and indirect communication. Sometimes this is done intentionally by top management or group leaders in order to maintain their control and ability to quickly shift their objectives and actions. More common is the discomfort of either managers or people who report to them in knowing how to broach these subjects and carry out the necessary conversations with the desired outcome: How do you bring it up? What do you say?

How do you deal with sensitive egos? Feeling insecure, they avoid or delay the conversations, or feel it is the other party's responsibility to start the dialogue. There is an inability to deal with conflict, even healthy conflict. If you are one of the people in the latter category, you need to take the initiative or you will be waiting with the issue festering inside you indefinitely.

Many people, including a large percentage of firm leaders, fear rocking the boat. There are risks, but what is underestimated is the cost of not speaking up. If there is dissatisfaction about anything firm members feel is important, the boat must be rocked, or eventually there are two consequences: nothing will change; and/or people will leave - maybe you. So the key to boat rocking is to do it with the desired impact and minimum threat.

SOME VEXING ISSUES

A list of "politically charged" issues raised in my coaching sessions over the years includes:
 

  • Feeling circumvented or left out of important meetings and assignments
     
  • Sharing credit for bringing in business
     
  • Being treated like a senior partner's assistant
     
  • Having to report to several masters
     
  • Mixed messages and unwritten rules
     
  • Being too closely associated with one partner
     
  • Understanding the motivations and behaviors of the people you report to
     
  • Dealing with inappropriate behavior
     
  • Penetrating the inner circle - (getting a seat at the table)
     
  • Inability to deal positively with conflict
     
  • Handling crucial conversations

While there is no room to cover in one article all the issues listed, here are some issues that from my coaching experience are the most common and sensitive - with suggestions on how to improve the situation.

GETTING OUT OF THE SHADOW

Many junior partners and associates face the problem of being too closely associated with one partner and/or being treated as an "assistant." Major rainmakers and/or partners with large and growing practices, especially those who are not well organized in work habits, may feel they are justified in pre-empting associates or more junior partners to attend to all their details and clean up their messes.

In exchange, they offer "protection." For some people who dislike having to generate business, this may seem like a good deal, but often and ultimately, it is not. There is no real security without your own power base, and it can be a hindrance to a career to be too closely associated with one partner. This is a common trap for women, but it happens to men as well.

How do you develop your own identity, get rid of the "assistant" work, and maintain a good relationship with the "protective" partner? Here are some steps to take:

 

  • Become known by other partners
     
  • Start to develop you own niche expertise and market it within the firm, as well as outside
     
  • Maintain a good relationship with the partner while easing into your own base
     
  • Help find other people to assist the partner
     
  • Have a "crucial conversation" with the partner about your need to grow on your own without making it seem threatening. If the relationship is with a long-time mentor, this can be particularly sticky.

DEALING WITH DIFFERING AND DIFFICULT PEOPLE

Whether owing to the adversarial nature of lawyer training and the lack of emphasis on interpersonal skills, the pressures to bill so many hours and the competitive nature of most law firm compensation systems, people who are considered "difficult" are found in many firms. (I am differentiating these from the smaller number who are outright abusive.) It is not unheard of to find "screamers," and unfortunately bad behavior is often tolerated by partners when the individual has key client relationships the firm fears losing if the individual is challenged or asked to leave. (Those situations require strong firm management action.)

More commonly, the behavior is not extreme. However, associates and junior partners are too often put in situations where they have to work with partners or senior associates who are overly demanding, argumentative, and critical - "difficult" - or who see things quite differently from them. Because these difficult people wield power, trying to forge at least a tolerable relationship with them can be to your long-term benefit. If you are junior to them, they can be very intimidating, but remember that people often exhibit difficult behaviors because of their fears of being bested, being embarrassed, losing face or losing control.

While you cannot change a person's personality, behaviors can be changed. You can influence behavior change by the way you approach, speak to and respond to a person's behavior tendencies. The way to begin is to assure that you maintain a positive mindset, no matter how difficult that is at times when faced with negative attitudes and actions from others.

Here are some tactics that usually prove successful.

 

  • Don't be defensive. Don't take the negativism personally. Many, if not most, negative people, perhaps particularly lawyers, don't realize they are being negative - it's the natural way they think, reinforced by their training to look for all the reasons things can't work.
     
  • Get a dialogue going. Ask open-ended questions and listen showing your interest, that what they think and say matters to you.
     
  • Throw them the ball. Let them list all the reasons "why not" and then ask: what are the most important things to them? Focus on one or two items of most concern to them and ask for their suggestions to address those concerns. Keep asking for constructive, productive suggestions, and only continue the conversation as long as they are will to be constructive.
     
  • Reinforce strengths. Point out their skills, accomplishments and strengths. Many negative people are insecure and lack self-confidence and self-esteem no matter what professional accomplishment they have under their belts.
     
  • Focus on the present and the future. Don't dwell on past history and baggage. If necessary, talk it out and put it to rest, then concentrate on what is now and what needs to be done for mutual benefit.
     
  • Keep the focus on the big picture. Don't get derailed by the details to the detriment of where you want to go.
     
  • Reinforce positive behaviors. Follow up with praise for cooperation and resolution of differences.

GETTING DESERVED SHARE OF CREDIT

One of the most difficult issues is getting rainmakers to share origination credit, because that may have a significant impact on compensation. An origination system can be insidious, protecting long-established power brokers and leaving newly developing business generators un-rewarded for their role in bringing in new business or expanding work with current clients. Some tactics to use to win your fair share include:

 

  • Step up your internal marketing so that others will be aware of your capabilities and efforts.
     
  • Document all your efforts and results.
     
  • Demonstrate independent efforts to develop business.
     
  • Make known your contributions to client retention.
     
  • Identify what else is important to the other person besides money and try to facilitate that type of recognition.

The internal dynamics within an organization, particularly a partnership, can be frustrating, demoralizing and destructive of maximum productivity. Dealing successfully with these issues requires strategic thinking, awareness of the principles of influence, savvy use of interpersonal skills, belief in one's self - and, often, a good coach.

© Phyllis Weiss Haserot, 2004. Phyllis Weiss Haserot is the president of Practice Development Counsel, a business development consulting and coaching firm, and its organizational effectiveness division, AuthenticWorks™. She is the author of "The Rainmaking Machine" (West Group). She can be reached at 212-593-1549, and pwhaserot@pdcounsel.com URL: www.pdcounsel.com

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