Surviving Office Politics

In an organizational hierarchy, bureaucratic politics share the same tendencies wherever you go. We attend classes on almost every subject imaginable but I can't think of one on how to deal with the political nature of law enforcement.

Amaury Murgado Headshot

Surviving the streets is hard enough, but the reality is that surviving the office can be even harder. Office politics and the bureaucratic process tend to be akin to a black hole that few escape intact once pulled inside.

Some old timers will tell you that the real reason we wear Kevlar is to walk safely in the halls of our agency. On the streets it's easy to know who is shooting at you; in the office, not so much. Ross Perot, former candidate for president in the early '90s, said it best: "War has rules, mud wrestling has rules, politics has none."

In an organizational hierarchy, bureaucratic politics share the same tendencies wherever you go. We attend classes on almost every subject imaginable but I can't think of one on how to deal with the political nature of law enforcement. The obstacles we encounter in a bureaucratic setting apply evenly to agencies with appointed or elected CEOs.

In the scheme of things, we can only influence decision-making so much; but as long as we do our jobs, we can walk away relatively unscathed in a politically charged arena. It's only when we don't do our jobs — or, even worse, use poor coping mechanisms — that our world starts to cave in. Let me share a few jewels I have learned over the last 23 years of my highly colorful career.

A Few Concepts

You have to start by understanding the difference between a manager and a leader. First, a manager manages things like schedules, time sheets, and budgets. A leader deals with people. A leader sets the tone, is a mentor, and tries to motivate his or her command on a daily basis.

The main difference between the two is that managers do things right, whereas leaders do the right thing. Therein lies the rub…the doing the right thing. Doing the right thing means different things to different people. For true bureaucrats it means doing the right thing for their careers. By trying to be someone instead of standing for something, the conditions necessary for a black hole start to form.

The next concept you need to understand is that office politics is nothing more than office relationships. I refer to this as relationship bubbles. No one is truly safe when creating a politically oriented relationship bubble because it can burst at any time. If you become a political liability or have spent all your political capital, you will find yourself outside looking in. Sometimes bubble people have a long ride and sometimes they have a hard fall.

In office politics, friendships are more important than skill sets. Political needs translate into practical needs. Relationship bubbles speak to issues of trust. Long-term friendships have a major impact on positions, assignments, and promotions. If you didn't get the transfer, it doesn't mean that the best qualified person did. All it really means is that you didn't, so don't take it personally. No one said life was fair and if they did, they lied.

Don't Always Take Credit

In general if you can answer two questions for a career bureaucrat, you have a better chance of affecting his decision-making: "What's in it for him?" and "How will his supervisor see it?" In past administrations, I have used this to my advantage. I have had to sell an idea by making it appear to be someone else's. If it was worthy, that person's supervisor would view him in a positive light.[PAGEBREAK]

So there is jewel number one…sometimes you have to make it someone else's idea to get it done. Leadership involves sacrifice and leaving your ego at home. Who cares who gets credit as long as the agency benefits? Remember, a career bureaucrat never lets the facts get in the way of his or her decision-making.

Don't Push

Good ideas still might not fly. Again, don't take it personally. To put it bluntly, some decisions are not yours to make. You may not know all the factors or variables involved in the process. When I was younger I didn't understand this. I used to argue my position passionately and try to push my ideas through anyway. People fall into two camps; they are either part of the problem or part of the solution.

By presenting your idea you are automatically part of the solution. Whether or not your idea gets accepted is beyond your control, but keep trying to be part of the solution. I learned jewel number two at great personal cost; it's better to present than push.

Just because your proposal is denied doesn't mean its dead. Instead, think of it as being postponed. Resubmit it later when conditions are more favorable. Try using the following as a guide while pitching your idea or working on a project (it will help keep you sane). Present your idea once in person, then allow for one follow-up phone call and one e-mail. Once you have done these three things, learn this mantra: "If it's not important to you, it's not important to me."

I remember being given a task to set up a date for someone to attend a function. I tried to set the date in person, made a phone call, and later sent an e-mail, all to no avail. The timeframe for the function passed and a short while later I received a phone call from a bubble person as to the status of the function. I informed him the original date had passed because no one had ever gotten back to me.

While being entertained with some highly energized language, I reminded the person on the other end of the phone that I had asked about confirming a date in person, called him, and sent an e-mail, all in an effort to nail down a date for him. The conversation ended rather abruptly when I respectfully said, "Sir, if it's not important to you, then it's not important to me." It ruffled his feathers but I had done my job. Which is jewel number two: Do your job and the worst thing that can happen to you is that you upset someone. However, if you don't do your job, you might not have one.

Expect Selective Memory

This leads to common practice among politicos; bureaucratic brain spasm (BBS). BBS is a convenient temporary loss of memory. My third jewel is that when dealing with BBS, document your actions. Consider documentation as helping to deal with BBS just like ginkgo biloba helps deal with memory; it helps refresh it.

You will find that when the heat is on, career bureaucrats say things like, "I don't remember saying that, doing that, or you sending me that." My detective colleagues say these are examples of non-answers. Not remembering doesn't mean it didn't happen. In the career bureaucrat's mind, suffering from BBS helps minimize liability and is therefore used as a deflection and redirection tactic.[PAGEBREAK]

I never worry about any form of selective memory because I was there and I remember for both of us. For example, sometimes the afflicted supervisor will tell you she never got what you sent her. That has an easy fix. You can either hand deliver it yourself and follow it up with an e-mail stating you did so (include a note mentioning if she has any questions to get back to you) or have a subordinate hand deliver it and have that person send you an e-mail stating he or she did so.

If the supervisor still says she didn't get it, show her your send-receive receipt. If you don't have a send-receive receipt capability, copy (cc) yourself. It's a safe bet if you got it so did she. If not, suggest the supervisor may have a computer virus or someone has stolen her password and is erasing her e-mails (warning: sarcasm rarely helps).

Another form of BBS involves a conversation with instructions that might be conveniently forgotten later. To deal with this situation, send an e-mail immediately after your meeting stating, "During our meeting today you asked me to do A, B, C…if I have misunderstood or you have any changes, please advise." If the person doesn't send you a corrective e-mail, you can argue later you got the instructions right.

Something else you should do is keep hard copies of all memos, e-mails, and other similar instructions. Having hard copies has saved me several times when I was questioned about doing things a certain way. I'd be asked, "Why did you do it that way, because it was wrong…" and I would simply answer, "Because you said so," and produce the memo in question. I have to admit that sometimes dealing with bubble people can be fun.

Choose Your Battles

My fourth jewel is to remind you that you have a sponsor whether you like it or not. Your immediate supervisor is your sponsor and by default becomes your mentor and guide. Your sponsor is your advocate because those above that person will see you through his or her eyes.

The lesson here is to pick and choose your battles wisely. The writings of Sun Tzu teach us to never fight just for the sake of fighting. Sometimes in denying a request, your sponsor is just sharing his or her experience with you. He or she probably knows what will fly and what will not. Learn from your sponsor (the good, the bad, and the ugly) and use that knowledge to help steer clear of the black hole.

Final Thoughts

To some extent, we all have to form our own type of relationship bubbles. Building relationships is not a bad thing when used for the common good. Understand that office politics, the bureaucratic process, and career bureaucrats, are not going away. Keep trying to be part of the solution anyway. When all else fails remember this: It is what it is.

If you want to learn more about the reality of politics in environments similar to ours, I highly recommend reading the books "The 48 Laws of Power" and "The 33 Strategies of War" by Robert Greene. You'll walk away shaking your head and saying, "Damn, this guy must have worked for us." I know I did.

Amaury Murgado is a special operations lieutenant with the Osceola County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office and a retired Master Sergeant from the Army Reserve.

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Amaury Murgado Headshot
Lieutenant (Ret.)
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