Office Politics and the Technical Writer

Due to the nature of our work and the differences of opinions about what we do, technical writers must be especially aware of office politics and how to handle them.

In her book, Office Politics, Marilyn Haight defines office politics like this: “Office politics is the use of one’s individual or assigned power within an employing organization for the purpose of obtaining advantages beyond one’s legitimate authority.” (Boldface mine)

“Those advantages,” she goes on to say, “may include access to tangible assets, or intangible benefits such as status or pseudo-authority that influences the behavior of others. Both individuals and groups may engage in Office Politics.”

So what does this have to do with technical writers? Technical writers are more vulnerable to negative effects of office politics than people in many other positions at the same company because of a number of reasons, including the following:

  1. There often are conflicting opinions about what technical writers do, how they should do it, and how important their work is.
    Some companies view technical writers as “glorified secretaries” while other companies see technical writers as important professionals ensuring the quality of the company’s documentation—with many other definitions in between. In the first role, the technical writer is expected to play a support role to the “real” professionals, “bothering” them as little as possible with “trivial” questions about the documents they’re writing and taking direction from all of these “real” professionals. The mindset often is that the “real” professionals, such as subject matter experts, are writing the company’s documentation and the technical writer is only there to do the “secretarial” tasks, such as checking what’s written by others for grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors (but without the power to change any errors that are found). In companies where technical writing is a recognized profession, on the other hand, the technical writer is respected as being a documentation specialist who takes the work of others and not only is allowed to make grammar, spelling, and punctuation changes in other people’s writing, but is also respected enough to make changes to the documentation to make it more understandable to a broader audience.
  2. People are afraid that technical writers will reveal things about them that they don’t want management to know.
    People may try to convince management that technical writers aren’t needed in the company because they’re afraid that technical writers will expose their weaknesses, such as poor writing skills or lack of knowledge (real or imagined) about the job they’re expected to do. Or they may be afraid they’ll lose their power so they try to convince management that their area of specialty is so difficult that only people with an education in that area of specialty can possibly understand it.
  3. There’s a widespread lack of writing skills in companies today.
    Ever since I started freelancing back in the early 1990s, I’ve noticed that many of the companies I’ve worked for don’t know the difference between good and bad writing. I’ve had companies proudly show me atrocious, convoluted writing samples to illustrate the type of writing they want me to do, hire people for technical writing roles based solely upon their personalities rather than writing skills, etc. Many people with poor writing skills actually think they are more than good writers – they think they are great writers so therefore, there’s no need for anyone, especially a technical writer, to edit or rewrite their documentation.
  4. Many people resent technical writers and think they have unjustified power simply because they can write.
    Ever since the demand for technical writers started picking up in 2010, I’ve been seeing more blatant resentment of technical writers in the workplace. I believe this is occurring because when many technical writing jobs were sent off-shore in the early 2000s (an experiment that proved disastrous for many companies), people have been required to edit the technical documentation written by those sources or write the company’s documentation themselves. Many people, it appears, gain a sense of power from doing this and they resist giving up that power to “just a technical writer.”

These are just a few of the reasons why technical writers may be a special target for negative office politics. Oh, and don’t forget – technically, we’re usually considered to be “overhead,” which means that most people think we cost them money without contributing to the bottom line, which adds to our vulnerability.

So, what do we do about it? How can we protect ourselves and our jobs from being victimized by bad office politics? I’ll be adding some more posts about how I handled different kinds of situations, but I’d love to hear from you too. What kinds of political situations have you experienced and how did you handle them? Let’s share!

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