Office Politics: Low Drama, High Output

As a new faculty member, it can be tricky to navigate the professional and personal relationships in your department or unit or lab. You fill in that blank with whatever you’ve got. I didn’t get a feel for what was happening until my office moved to the same floor as my colleagues and I have observed some very interesting things. I’m not saying it’s all bad or all good, but there’s certainly a culture in the department among the faculty that I was unaware of.

I first noticed that there’s a segment of the faculty who are night owls. They work best from about 8 p.m. until last call per say. I’m not in that camp. They do it for a variety of reasons: kid schedules, partner schedules (or lack thereof & they can do what they want), or it’s their preferred time based on their circadian clocks for maximum work time with minimal interruptions from anyone. The night owls tend to be closer and go to each other first. I know lots of conversations probably take place that go beyond work and dive into personal stuff. It’s kind of like the old saying that “the majority of business takes place after hours (at a bar over drinks).” I stay once in a while past normal hours. One evening, I got caught talking with two of the night owls about research until about 8 p.m. Another evening, I came back after listening to a good talk about international development to research some points the speaker made and was in the office until 10 p.m. I slept like crap and was all messed up. I learned quickly that I’m not a night owl by nature and I’m better off getting up early to work.

Outside activities influence the social context. The biggest “outside activity” I can think of is church and there’s a small group of folks that go to the same church and are very social about things with each other only. I don’t get it. I don’t want to, but I also see how a great social network and community can form. I’m not against it. They’re always very friendly and they always invite me to church.

The people who all went to the same university. There’s a large contingent of the faculty in my department who all went to the same university for at least one of their degrees. That also includes me. In this field of work, there’s a few universities that have outstanding programs and my alma mater is one of them. I’m proud. Again, never over the top stuff, but it’s kind of fun to have a rivalry once in a while.

The weekend crew. I’m on the weekend crew. I usually come in for a few hours on Sunday afternoon’s to get ready for the week, map out my calendar, and take care of anything I’ve left from Friday. I avoided weekend time for several years in my old appointment, but started last fall due to teaching load and new responsibilities. The weekend crew is sparse on Sunday’s and we always say hello and chat for a few minutes. I try not to be too chatty on Sunday’s as I consider that “my time” and am very protective of it. One Sunday, I caught what I would consider to be a “very personal” conversation between two other faculty who are close and I actually turned on music so I didn’t have to listen to it. Unfortunately, they were next door to me, so it was hard to avoid in many ways, but I’ll be honest: Sunday is not social time for me. Sunday is “get crap done” for Monday time. I usually treat myself to a coffee from somewhere other than my house and go in for a few hours. I set myself a time to be done by and usually leave by then in order to enjoy the rest of my dat.

Other social factors influence navigating office politics in a big way. There is a culture in my department that is very student centered, very “low drama, high output” centered and I like it that way. These folks are like good neighbors and I appreciate their intellect and “good human” characteristics. There are times when I walk into a room or down the hallway and see colleagues having a discussion and I get the feeling I wasn’t supposed to “walk in” right then but on the flip side, perhaps they should have closed the door or not had the conversation in a public arena.

Plain and simple: there’s office politics. I think it’s unavoidable but you get to decide how you interact with them. I will admit, I have asked about some issues and educated myself. I try to keep any gossip at a very low level and generally keep socializing to “light” topics. I make a point to visit the grad offices to say hello and see if my students need anything. I think it’s important to remain a human being in this job. I used to get so frustrated for professors when they were totally unavailable that it’s made me conscious enough to be available when I can be. Visiting with them in their domain can be helpful to hear what’s going on in their grad student heads.

It’s truly all about balance in any situation. I cannot say enough positive things about my department. I’m really enjoying it. Within any group of humans, politics and office chatter are bound to arise and it’s important to be aware of it. Having other friends to chat with about whatever is happening is the way to go. I’m not talking about slandering anyone, but an outside source (or several) who can listen is always key. An outside person may also have an objective, non-biased opinion and you can surely benefit from that.

Whatever the situation is, navigating the social aspect of any department is an exercise. Don’t overdo it. Nobody wants to be “that guy or girl.”

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