By Will Hayward 09/09/2015

One of the greatest causes of stress in our lives is change. Starting a new job or losing an old one, getting married or divorced, or moving house all create major challenges for us, because an entire domain of life is suddenly and irrevocably altered. It takes time to settle into the new circumstances, and develop an understanding of new social roles or new ways of getting things done.

My colleague Dr Helena Cooper-Thomas has recently looked at the first of these stressors, getting a new job, in a very specific context: the arrival of new Members of Parliament following an election. We are fascinated by politics and the people that seek to hold office, and sometimes it is easy to forget that they are people just like us, trying to figure out their place in the world and how to work effectively in their new role. The job of an MP is more complex than most, since your continued tenure in the role is based on the opinions of thousands of people. Each of your colleagues is a potential collaborator but also a potential rival. Maneuvering your way around the challenges, and appearing successful but not overly ambitious, is a constant battle.

And yet, in many ways this situation is just like that faced by many of us when we take new positions in the workforce. Suddenly we need to meet a large set of new colleagues and try to figure out if each one is ambitious, narcissistic, or genuinely nice. To what extent should we ask for help in novel situations, and when does asking questions make us look unqualified? And how do we figure out which problems are relatively minor and which are career-threatening? MPs face all these issues, but under the bright lights of public and the media. What can we learn from their experiences to help us in our own workplaces?

Helena and her colleague, Jo Silvester from City University London interviewed MPs in the UK and NZ, and looked at three interesting issues:

1. How do you balance needing to look competent with needing to find the information that you don’t have? Who hasn’t started a new job and pretended to more about how the system works than they actually do? You want to look like you’re competent and you think this will not be demonstrated by continually asking questions about what seems like very basic details. Yet, by pretending to know more than you do you end up putting a lot of pressure on yourself.

This occurs for MPs, but much more publicly. Expressing lack of knowledge of an issue can be quickly spun by media or parliamentary opponents into the appearance that you’re in over your head. Despite this, the authors report that new MPs are advised to just “have a go”, because that is one of the best ways to learn how the system actually works. The key is obviously to keep your errors relative small, in order not to attract eyes that may seek to magnify relatively minor transgressions.

2. How do you work cooperatively with your competitors? In many workplaces you need to be part of a team in order to succeed, yet you may want to stand out from your teammates to get ahead within the system. Bosses may be able to spot a dilettante who seeks to get ahead by taking credit for others’ efforts; but maybe not. How much do you put your head down and get on with it, and how much do you make sure that your superiors know how you’ve contributed. Most of us try to do both.

Again, this tension if amplified for new MPs. Your ability to sustain and advance your career in parliament will come from convincing the people who elect you that you are representing their interests and making a difference. If you succeed in making a difference, but no-one knows, your term as an MP may be very short. Everyone else becomes competition, so with no-one to trust parliament can be a lonely place. Helena and Jo were told by MPs that to survive, an MP needs to find comrades, even if they are unlikely to have complete trust in their newfound friends.

3. Get in the media but don’t be a hog! Since MPs need to convince their electors of their effectiveness, they need to get into the media to make themselves visible. This is not such an issue for most of us, who toil away at our own job, well off the radar of national media. But news travels in any organization, and so the rules still apply; we each need to be seen, but not too much. Your workmate who always makes sure that he/she presents your team’s ideas in the big meeting runs the risk of upstaging the team leader, and can have deleterious impact on his/her advancement within the team. You need to make yourself look good, but you also (to some degree) need to make those around you look good as well.

The big boss for a political party is not the leader but the general public, who get to fire everyone once every three years. So as a new MP your desire to get yourself in the public view (to get to voters in your electorate) has to tradeoff with making sure you don’t get in front of your party leader and members of the front bench. Navigating these subtle issues doubtless gets easier after a few years experience; but there are plenty of opportunities to put your foot in it (see Aaron Gilmore as Exhibit A). The same lessons apply for us all, but hopefully with slightly less possibility for embarrassment when we get it wrong.

Being an MP is equal parts glamorous and grimy. You get to influence the nation, yet most MPs are small cogs in a vast machine, with equal likelihood of getting noticed for a mistake and getting overlooked for good work. The thing we voters don’t often think about is that in many ways it is just a job like any other. A relatively well-paid job, for sure, and one that has perks like travel and status. But a job for which there is no real training, lots of jerks as co-workers, and plenty of potential for gaining the wrong sort of attention from everyone you know (Shane Jones, anyone?). I think I’ll stay in my ivory tower, thanks very much.

For more information on the research of Dr Helena Cooper-Thomas, click here:

For the research paper discussed in this post, click here: