In all the years I’ve managed and coached engineers, I’ve found there is one thing they consistently despise and avoid: office politics. Sure, no one likes high-pressure deadlines, being on call, or jerk coworkers. However, deadlines and being on call are transitory, and you can switch teams to avoid jerks. Office politics, on the other hand, are always there, haunting engineers’ dreams of advancement. Why? Because engineers know that the higher they are promoted within an organization’s power structure, the more they’re going to deal with politics. Politics is the troll preventing engineers from crossing the bridge to their career aspirations.
Why do engineers hate and avoid office politics so much? Engineers tend to be logical and rational, like the computers at the heart of their work. Politics rarely seem logical or rational. It’s not that engineers want people to be like computers (though some do), but that they feel people should make decisions based on reasoned arguments rather than whimsical interpersonal dance moves.
Well, I bring you good news. You needn’t forestall your career. The kinds of office politics you’ll encounter, even at the highest levels within your company, are easy to navigate and master. Yes, they’re unavoidable, but you can handle them without much frustration or loss of your soul. Let’s talk about why office politics exist, why they’re easy to master, and how you can successfully navigate them with integrity while sacrificing only a few brain cells.
For more on being an organization and industry leader, read Making the big time.
Why are you here?
Many engineers have asked me why office politics exists, and some say that if they started their own company, they’d banish politics. Well, good luck with that. Politics is the set of activities associated with making group decisions. If you have a group of people and you need to make decisions, you get politics.
One person working alone can make their own decisions. Small groups of people working closely together can develop deep trust over time, bounce ideas off each other, and come to consensus decisions. However, as soon as the group becomes too large for members to work closely together and develop deep trust, you’ve entered the realm of politics. Even adding one new person to an established group introduces politics. It’s unavoidable, unfortunately.
“Yeah, well, my group is large and works with several other groups, and we make all our decisions based on only facts and data!” No, you don’t. Whose facts and data do you use? Do you argue over what different facts and data signify? Do you compromise due to conflicting goals and priorities? You might be cordial about it and make sensible decisions, but you’re engaging in politics. That’s okay. Even though politics has a negative connotation, you can engage in it authentically and reach good decisions with integrity.
For more on data-driven decision making, read Data-driven decisions and Aggregation aggravation.
Oh, that’s easy
You’ve probably heard horror stories about office politics: people making “big moves,” getting “backstabbed,” and making decisions based on “who knows who.” Those stories can be scary to engineers who want decisions to be based on facts and logic, not interpersonal games. The good news, however, is that businesspeople are amateurs at politics.
There are professional politicians who really know politics. They know how to play the most intricate political games. They can hire operatives, plant information, manipulate the media, squeeze their adversaries, and push the boundaries of legality. Businesspeople aren’t that sophisticated when it comes to internal politics.
Businesspeople are rarely professional politicians, and though they can hire political professionals to work on their behalf, such sophisticated methods rarely work with internal office politics. Businesspeople are measured against data on their effectiveness, and that data eventually surfaces. Internal social media (Yammer, Slack, or Teams) operates in an information-rich environment that is hard to manipulate. Internal adversarial (win-lose) negotiation causes the company to lose and is disincentivized. And the company takes swift and harsh action against those who create legal issues by pushing the boundaries. Thus, office politics rarely involves tactics beyond what you’d see in a schoolyard.
Maybe you didn’t do well in schoolyard politics, but you’re an adult now and can handle it. It’s not hard. It’s not sophisticated. It may seem juvenile at times, but you can easily master it.
I’ve got it figured out
Office politics surround making group decisions, particularly decisions about career advancement, project and resource approval and renewal, and fighting real or imagined threats. These are all important decisions, especially if it’s your career, your project, or you are the perceived threat. You can’t avoid politics, so you should be competent in dealing with it.
The three keys to navigating office politics with little fallout are neutralizing manipulation, making compelling arguments, and negotiating effectively. We’ll focus mainly on neutralizing manipulation since I’ve covered compelling arguments and negotiation in other columns.
When people think about office politics, they often associate them with manipulative strategies—ways to influence decision-makers aside from discussing the merits. Because office politics aren’t that sophisticated, there are typically only five types of manipulative strategies that might be used against you (as in the schoolyard). Let’s talk about how to neutralize (and whether to use) each one.
- Disparaging directly or through rumors. This is an attack on you, your team, or your project to sway others against you. To neutralize it, you should establish a personal brand of integrity and avoid being harshly critical. You’ll create more friends than enemies, and disparaging comments won’t stick to you. For a specific situation, acknowledge weak points and risks upfront, along with associated mitigations. Doing so disarms disparagement. As for using disparagement against others, it only works short term, and it hurts your relationships. I don’t recommend it.
- Calling in favors. This strategy aims to win arguments based on relationships instead of objective evaluation. To neutralize it, you should be kind to others and happily in their debt (so folks feel conflicted and might even tip you off). For a specific situation, build a broad coalition of aligned partners and give them generous credit. These motivated partners will balance and often overwhelm the favor-based relationships that oppose you. As for using favors against others, doing so depletes a limited resource and doesn’t always lead to the best results, so only rely on this strategy as a last resort.
- Ganging up by inviting allies to join threads and meetings. This approach attempts to overwhelm and push opinion in one direction. To neutralize it, you should know which leaders, teams, and partners align with your interests, and keep them appraised of your work (always helpful). For a specific situation, keep an eye on thread additions and meeting attendee lists. If threads or meetings get too big, cancel them and start new ones with culled lists (best option) or bring in your own allies (sometimes necessary). As for ganging up on others, doing so can be useful, but it’s not essential for allies to join threads or meetings—just listing them for people is often sufficient.
- Deferring to authority using rules, experts, or leaders. This tactic tries to intimidate you into a restricted set of choices, including the claim that there is only one choice. To neutralize it, you should develop a wide network, including executives, thought leaders, lawyers, HR, and finance—people who set or interpret the rules. For a specific situation, ensure you’re aligned with authorities in advance. If you’re not, adjust your plans and/or use your network to change the rules or get an exception. As for using authority against others, doing so is a lazy and petty tactic that replaces thoughtful deliberation with blind adherence. Only rely on this strategy when others indicate that they are deferring their decision to an authority.
- Controlling the conversation through agendas, decision criteria, notes, and communications. This strategy subtly sways decision making—it’s quite effective but requires often-thankless effort. To neutralize it, you should establish a reputation for being organized, fair, clear, and hard working. For a specific situation, volunteer to assist with coordination, note-taking, and communications. If someone else controls the conversation, you should promptly and carefully review agendas, decision criteria, notes, and communications, providing quick corrections and feedback as needed. I recommend you or an organized ally control the conversation whenever possible.
For more on building a network—a key political strength—read Get yourself connected.
Like civilized people
Once you’ve neutralized manipulation, you can make compelling substantive arguments that will be fairly considered. I discuss how to do this in Work politics with integrity and Keep it professional. Basically, listen to understand the concerns and needs of others, clearly communicate your concerns and needs, and then discuss potential solutions that meet the needs of everyone, framed in a way each stakeholder can appreciate. Some people will want clear facts and data relevant to their business. Others will need support from respected authorities. Still others may respond best to compelling anecdotes that drive emotion.
Regardless, you’ll often need to negotiate. The process is the same: Gather everyone’s concerns and needs, then find a solution that meets them in such a way that no one objects. The difference between negotiation and making an effective argument, in this case, is compromise and collaboration you achieve together in negotiation to ensure all concerns and needs are met sufficiently.
For more on cross-group negotiation, read My way or the highway—Negotiation and Winning among friends.
There is no hope
Sometimes people just seem to be against you, and there’s no hope of finding a compromise. That’s okay. It’s important to choose battles you can win and care enough to fight, letting other issues slide to preserve your political capital.
Nonetheless, many arguments that seem unwinnable are easy to win.
- If the person against you cares more about winning than anything else, propose solutions that make them look good and let them win (while you win too). This can be as simple as giving them credit and mentioning how much they benefit. I know it feels icky, but good results are worth it, and people who put themselves before the company eventually fail.
- As I mention in Keep it professional, if there’s no reasonable way to meet everyone’s needs, escalate the issue to upper management, articulating why no solution is possible. Often management is unaware of the lose-lose situation and will fix it for you. They don’t want to lose.
For more on talking to upper management, read The VP-geebees.
You can do it
Office politics can be annoying, uncomfortable, and seem illogical, but they are unavoidable as you rise in influence and impact. Fortunately, office politics aren’t that sophisticated, and you can master them while maintaining your integrity and sanity. You can neutralize people who disparage you by being a high-integrity person and acknowledging weak points and risks upfront. Neutralize favors called in against you by building a broad coalition of aligned partners. Neutralize people ganging up on you by culling threads and meetings and countering with your own broad coalition when necessary. Neutralize deference to authority by aligning with authorities in advance and getting exceptions as needed. Neutralize people who control the conversation by volunteering to assist with coordination, note-taking, and communications and quickly providing feedback on agendas, decision criteria, notes, and messaging.
Once you’ve neutralized manipulation, listen to understand the concerns of others, clearly communicate your concerns, and then discuss potential solutions that meet the needs of everyone. If someone only cares about looking good, let them look good by sharing credit and benefits. If there’s no practical way to meet everyone’s needs, articulate the reasons to your shared management, and they’ll often unblock you. If there’s still no solution or you’ve got more important battles to fight, let the issue go and move on.
Office politics don’t need to hinder you, your team, or your brilliant ideas. Accept that group decisions need to be made somehow and that people are social beings with differing needs. Then learn the basics of dealing with manipulative strategies, make your compelling arguments, and negotiate a compromise that leaves everyone feeling good about shared progress. You can be that leader.
Special thanks to Irada Sadykhova and Bob Zasio for providing valuable feedback on the first draft of this month’s column.
Want personalized coaching on this topic or any other challenge? Schedule a free, confidential call. I provide one-on-one career coaching with an emphasis on underrepresented, midcareer software professionals. Find out more at Ally for Onlys in Tech.
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