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Work politics with integrity

People in general, and engineers in particular, often complain about politics in the workplace with its associated bureaucracy. Unfortunately, politics and bureaucracy are inherent in groups larger than two, and our company has more than two employees. Data-driven decision making helps remove some seemingly arbitrary political maneuvering, but when you put a bunch of humans together, politics ensues.

Some folks try to avoid politics, speaking to everyone plainly and factually and accepting the consequences. That seems noble, if occasionally abrasive, and avoids the lies and deceit associated with smooth-talking politicians. However, when people ask you if they look nice or what you think of their idea, plain and factual can come across as blunt and insensitive. Maybe you don’t need to get along with everyone, but as you rise in level, scope, influence, and impact, you need to work well with a large collection of people.

You might proclaim, “I’m unwilling to sacrifice my integrity to advance my career!” I get that. You may see politicians as liars who make false promises. In contrast, you speak the truth as you know it and your word is your bond. I admire you for that. However, a little tact and diplomacy could help your career growth. How do you participate in politics without compromising your integrity? Master two skills: empathy and reframing.

Bow, stubborn knees

People often confuse inflexibility with integrity. Inflexibility is a false idol. You can hold to your principles while applying them in different ways to different circumstances. You can speak the truth to everyone while adapting how you frame it to a specific audience. That may sound like a slippery slope toward compromising your values, but high-integrity people do it every day. You do it every day.

Perhaps you believe every line of code should be unit tested, but you don’t unit test when you’re fiddling around to figure something out. Maybe you know the private reason why a friend switched assignments, but you don’t share it with your coworkers. We are continually adapting our language to specific situations. Failing to consider who you’re talking to and what you’re talking about is foolish.

While life’s events often recur in patterns and we’re all human beings, each situation and person is unique. To deal with each circumstance effectively, you must consider what you know and don’t know, what you care about and don’t care about, and what the other people involved know and care about, since their perspectives will be different.

Meet me where I am

Some people fail to consider the knowledge and beliefs of others. They produce presentations they find instructive and make arguments for action they find compelling. However, there’s no need to educate and convince yourself of what you already know and believe. You aren’t the audience.

If you really want to inform and convince others of your viewpoint, you need to comprehend theirs first. Empathy for your coworkers, partners, management, and customers is essential to your effectiveness. How do you gain this empathy? By listening and asking questions before making statements and arguments of your own.

What questions should you ask? Once you get past the basics of people’s names, roles, goals, constraints, timelines, priorities, and concerns, seek details associated with choices or views that don’t make sense to you. Keep asking until all their decisions seem sensible in context, even if you still disagree. Now you all know enough to avoid repeating known facts and replaying failed arguments. Instead, you can focus on enhancing each other’s insights with new information and solving each other’s problems in new ways.

Up, down, and all around

When you have empathy for your coworkers, partners, management, and customers, you talk to each of them in the way they can best understand and appreciate, regardless of whether the news is good or bad. Each conversation may sound a bit different, yet be entirely consistent. You are upholding your integrity while reframing your information and arguments to better address each person’s current knowledge and needs.

For example, say your team is responsible for a website that depends on a web service that is falling short of its performance goals. Customers are depending on your website for the product launch. Based on empathetic conversations, you know your management is concerned, your co-workers are upset, your customers are impatient, and your partners on the web service team are livid because your website’s differentiated calling pattern is overloading their service for all clients. How do you frame your response to each of these stakeholders?

  • Management: While they care about the problem, they mostly want to know what you’re doing to fix it and when it will be corrected. They offer to help, but there’s not that much they can do. You describe the problem at a high level without assigning blame—no need to make enemies of your partners who are best-positioned to provide substantive help. You lay out a plan to engage the web service team and get the situation resolved within a month (a slightly conservative, realistic estimate).
  • Co-workers: They understand the technical issue and have little sympathy for the partner team and its underperforming web service. They think the web service is designed poorly. You remind them that they can’t succeed without partners and that the partner team is just as motivated to solve the issue as you are, since it’s impacting other clients. You all need to work together.
  • Customers: They know nothing of the system architecture and don’t care. They aren’t looking for excuses. They want to know when the product will launch in a usable state. You have marketing update the promotional material to remove any specific dates. You use customer discussion channels to indicate that interest in the product has overwhelmed the site, but you’re working hard to ensure every customer can enjoy the new services when they are ready for launch.
  • Partners: Their web service was running well until your differentiated calling pattern overwhelmed it. However, your calling pattern is intrinsically tied to your website’s customer experience. You meet with your web service partner team, acknowledge their concerns, and pledge to rectify the situation immediately. You also make your own needs clear, have them acknowledged, and receive a pledge to meet your needs within a month. The detailed plan ends up immediately dropping your load on the service, while the service team creates a new index and REST API to handle your calling pattern efficiently.

Yes, this is a contrived example, but it’s based on real experiences. Notice how you talk to each group differently, without lying or being deceptive, without playing at politics. Instead, you give management the high-level plan they need, your co-workers the execution plan they need, your customers the reassurance they need, and your partners the acknowledgment and resolution they need. Even though no one starts happy, participating in politics with integrity ensures everyone wins because each is treated with the care and dignity that empathy engenders.

My good name

You can retain your integrity and reputation for being straightforward and honest while still navigating the politics of working with a wide range of people that have different and often conflicting goals. The key is having the empathy to ask, listen, and learn about their needs and the ability to reframe your discussions with each person and group in a way that acknowledges and fulfills their needs, while affording you the same consideration.

This approach is not difficult once you get used to it, but it takes practice to empathize with frustrated individuals and groups and then reframe the conversation to align your shared knowledge and varying goals. However, no skills are more valuable for expanding your influence and impact than empathy and reframing. Practice with friends and family, start using empathy and reframing at work, and gradually you’ll find that participating in politics with integrity not only preserves your good name, but also reinvigorates your career.

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