Arguing · Decisions · Leading change · Reflection

The dark art of office politics for IT leaders (part one – why is it stressful?)

Apparently office politics is a horrible thing that other people do.

But many of the emerging IT leaders I speak to get told they need to be better at “soft skills” and “influencing at a senior level”.  What this often means is get good a politics.

Sadly a lot of office politics seems to involve people playing games to get their own way at the expense of everyone else. This skill can be learned and might seem useful, but it is not what I am going to talk about here.  I am going to talk about “how do the good guys get the right outcomes when people have competing interests or needs and some people seem like knob-heads”.

Over a couple of articles, I will argue that a senior IT leader will need a personal brand, the ability to influence people to do the right thing.  This will involve some light soul searching but mostly some simple rules of thumb that have often worked for me (and others I have observed).

Let’s start with some simple assumptions

  1. You want to do the right thing but find it hard when people slow down or corrupt good decision making, or act in their own self-interest rather than doing the right thing
  2. Other people are generally good even if they are not as smart and good looking as you
  3. Politics is stressful in senior roles – potentially even more stressful when you don’t know how to play or just don’t want to play games at other people’s expense

You can make the call on assumption one.

I will say in respect of assumption two that I think people are generally good, although a small minority would honestly contribute more as fertilizer for rare food crops than they do as IT partners. But if the majority of people are good, why do things often seem so hard?

My assumption here is that people try to do the right thing based on what information they have, how they currently interpret it and what techniques have worked for them (or appeared to work for them) in the past. Unfortunately the techniques that worked for them in the past are not always the best to use now, they usually have incomplete and potentially incorrect information and they interpret it in ways you do not expect.  Thus good people encounter seemingly difficult situations and often do things that seem to make it worse rather than help.

Of course things often go well too – but the article on “what to do when everything goes really well” is pretty short. In fact all the wisdom I have just says “enjoy it and stick around for more”.

So – onto the third assumption – politics is stressful even if you don’t want to play.  Again I will leave you decide if this is the case, but I will comment on why I think it is.

A lot of people have said “politics is stressful because I am a good guy and just want to get on with things”.  I guess the assumption is that politics is bad and the people who are stressed are feeling so because they don’t want to turn evil.

Instead of saying politics I could say “negotiating the right outcome in complex situations where people have incomplete information and competing needs”.  Then it would be a mouthful but probably not actually evil.  Or I could have said “motivating and aligning people when you can’t force them to do what you want”.  This actually sounds a bit less evil to me than forcing them.

I think the answer lies in your motivation. Assuming you are motivated to do the right thing and that everyone is willing to agree on what that thing is, then the challenge is a mixture of good problem solving and good communication skills.  If you are a PM or an IT Director you would probably have these already to get you where you are now.

In fact I think the theory of motivating people on projects is quite straightforward in theory (I blogged about it here and added some complications here).  I think getting good at motivating people like this is going to help reduce the amount of political game playing that goes on and to reduce the stress of having arguments when there are different and competing needs).

Further than this though – there is the problem of your own motivation and stress is caused when you encounter conflicting motivations or value choices yourself (this is called Incongruence I think).  Let me explain this as I believe this is why you would actually feel conflicted and stressed when playing politics

You are motivated to do the right thing. So you are happy when you are able to act on your motivation to do the right thing and stressed when you are not.

Clearly if you are asked to do the wrong thing this is bad. But then the answer is “just don’t do it”.  Then you will be happy again.

“But what if I have to do it?” you might ask.  Actually this is pretty rare and as Spock says “there is always an alternative”.  So if you boss says to go and make Larry fudge his report you can just say no, then get fired and go home happy.

Hmmm- don’t like the getting fired bit?  That is because you have a conflict in your motivations – you are motivated to be honest, to do the right thing by Larry and to keep you job. If you only cared about one of those then your decision would be easy.

It turns out there are three kinds of motivation that can be aligned (congruence – and you are really happy) or misaligned (incongruent so you are stressed).  They are

  1. “I want to motivation”.  This means you are motivated to do something because you want to do it – I want to eat chocolate, I want to be liked by Larry
  2. “I should” motivation.  This means you are motivated to do something because it is the right thing to do – I should exercise, I should be honest
  3. “I need to” motivation.  This means I need to do something as part of a contract or obligation – I need to work to get paid, I may not want to and it is neither right nor wrong but it is necessary to do this if I want to be paid

So if eating chocolate made me happy and made me fit it would be excellent.  I would want to eat it, I would think I should eat it and I would actually eat quite a lot of it.  My only issue would be when i could not afford it anymore and needed to stop to do some work to earn more money to get more chocolate.

But if I think I should be fit and I want to eat chocolate – this is a conflict.  I will eat the chocolate and feel guilty or I will feel unsatisfied.

So this is the first lesson in politics – If you are feeling stressed it is usually a conflict in your values (reasons for doing things) or your motivation to satisfy two competing needs.  It is rarely actually the other knobheads causing you stress and if it is simply choosing between good and bad just choose good.

A lot of people get very stressed because they feel trapped or forced to do things that they don’t like (meetings, scamming people, doing what a dumb boss told them to do) but they are only trapped because they are not clear on what principles should guide their actions.

The easiest way around this is to “rationalize”.  This means trick yourself that it is not your choice and not your fault. That way there is no decision to make and thus no stress should occur.  You can do this by simply ignoring any information or uncomfortable feelings that challenge you to make a choice and just focus on the information that is convenient to use in explaining why you are doing what you are doing.  This is easy, but unfortunately leaves you conflicted because your subconscious brain is not dumb enough to fall for it.

This is the second rule of politics –  good people usually think they are doing the right thing. This is often in spite of the information you see as obvious because they (and often you) are rationalising things to  and will often ignore sensible information that challenges them to face conflicting values. Thus presenting them with logical information will fail and trying to deal with them will leave you stressed.

There is a harder but more effective approach to removing this stress though.  It involves two things – firstly knowing what your values are and secondly stopping to pay attention to that uncomfortable feeling that causes you to feel stressed. Otherwise you will act on incomplete information yourself and use ineffective techniques, communication or actions that will not actually resolve your internal conflicts.

Hmmm .. but how do you do that?  One simple way (seriously) is just to meditate.  This gives your brain time to sort things out.  The second way is to be aware of your personal brand.

By brand I mean the things you stand for, the way you act around others and the standards you set for yourself.  The more you become clear on your brand, the more others will know how to deal with you and the easier it will be to notice and resolve conflicting values or needs when you encounter you.

I think the idea that clear criteria for making decisions (ie having values) will help identify and reduce conflicts, but how does letting others know what to expect from you and giving them the tools to better manage their interactions with you.

That will have to wait for another article – The dark art of office politics and the need for a personal brand.


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