Politics, it is said, is a blood sport. It’s often true, even in the low-key world of IT. The people who work for you may be innocent of this fact, but as a manager, you are almost certainly all too aware of it.
A more useful definition for the IT professional is that politics is the science of who gets what, when, and why. Consider that IT is second only to accounting in enabling a business to function; it is collective by nature and forced to extreme cooperation and accommodation by external market pressures and internal inertia; it is not amenable to rapid change. And yet it’s often viewed, paradoxically, as the all-powerful maverick protector of a company's mission. Amid such contradictions and misperceptions, some political manipulations are inevitable.
IT, more than any other department, is ultimately about the common good. But in IT office politics, the agendas served are seldom if ever for the common good, and discourse is almost never public. The politics are often about three types of personal agendas: pursuit of position, control of resources, or advancement of individual goals. And these prizes can tend to be more dazzling in IT than anywhere else. Senior IT management personnel can wield great influence, and IT resources are necessarily considerable. IT office politics can get ugly, and you're better off steering clear, for your own good and the good of your department.
That’s easier said than done.
Know what’s going on, even if you’re not involved
The bigger the company, the harder it is to make IT a political football, but you as a leader of one of your company’s most precious resources will eventually see a project or a major implementation or some other IT resource used by someone higher up as political coin. It happens everywhere, and all too frequently.
Similarly, whatever career ladder you’re climbing is also being climbed by a number of others, and some of them prefer political motion to the drudgery of hard work and strong values. Above you, and below you, are employees who enjoy playing politics to get where they want to go, and politics is often a zero-sum game: To create winners, losers must exist. Some of these individuals may not hesitate to step on you in the course of their climb.
Perhaps you’ve long ago decided to steer clear of this sort of thing. But it’s one thing to refuse to play, and another to dull your awareness of what goes on around you. Declining to step on others doesn’t automatically protect you from being stepped on.
This is especially important for an IT line manager. Why? Because of your position in the company hierarchy, anyone who successfully steals your accomplishments is simultaneously stealing from your team. Allow this to happen and it will haunt you for a long time; your people will be disheartened and will resent you for not defending their hard work. It falls to you to watch out for problems, while remaining politically uninvolved.
Pay close attention
Gossip is for gossips; but you should be aware enough to pick up on the prevailing winds without wallowing in mud. Be aware of who shoots straight and who plays games, even among your superiors (especially among your superiors). Watch what happens, not out of rubbernecked fascination, but in the prudent interest of self-preservation. If you know who is up to no good, and which situations are volatile, you’ll know what to avoid. You can’t steer clear of trouble if you don’t know where it is.
Cultivate positive neutrality
There are some in your company with whom you get along particularly well; some with whom you are simply cordial; and some who perhaps make you bristle. If you have a strong sense of the motivations of the people around you, you have a fair idea of what to expect of them. When political issues surface, you’ll recognize them no matter how they’re cloaked.
These issues can surface in areas a manager doesn’t expect to have any trouble: misappropriation of credit for a team success, inappropriate assignment of authority in relationships with vendors and partner organizations, or calculated cultivation of bias in user groups with respect to their needs and expectations. These may seem like areas where no one would dare cause misdirection, but an unscrupulous political personality can use them to enhance his own position and diminish yours.
Even if you’ve resolved not to get involved in such issues, there will be some who maintain an awareness of you, just as you maintain an awareness of others. Your position in IT may even make you a particularly interesting study. What do you project, and what do others expect to see in you?
One of the worst political challenges I ever faced was dealing with a senior manager who had the ear not only of the company's board of directors, but of investors and executives in potential partner companies. While our team quietly and diligently designed and developed and sweated blood, this manager was rewriting our program history with himself as key innovator—and he had not only failed to support our work, he had argued that we pursue a flashier but less productive course.
Along with another project manager, we undertook (realizing our teams were watching us closely) to avoid the obvious political pothole, while presenting a low-key but detailed picture of the realities of our work in progress. We refused to get down and dirty with our superior; instead, we simply reported our progress far and wide, spreading the credit as liberally as we could, leaving out not the lowliest programmer. Our formal report was "summarized," as we expected; but the posted kudos to the team, the "credits" page we inserted in the project notes that were made available to the board, and the congratulatory e-mails we sent out when milestones were achieved were not. We projected team spirit and a positive attitude. Without playing any games, and without any calculated confrontation, we ensured that credit was given where credit was due. The senior manager did not succeed in capitalizing on success that wasn't his.
It's generally a good choice to project congenial neutrality in all personnel and project issues of a political nature. Taking sides can come back to haunt you, and an open disdain for corporate politics can be interpreted as disdain for the players, which can also bite back someday. And it is certainly important that you project a concern for your team's well being. You’ll rapidly develop a reputation for being upbeat, and by refusing to go negative, demonstrate that you are impervious to the office politics process.
When someone tries to rope you in
At times, someone may specifically try to draw you out on an office politics issue, whether it’s support of an individual or a desire to torpedo some project. The approach may be not at all subtle, and you may be cornered and pressed for your opinions.
You may even approve of the agenda, or the individual being discussed. But to add to some underground swell of momentum is no way to get things done. Your views are not this person’s business. What do you do?
It’s best to remember, and to remind others, that your loyalties are with your company first. Whatever your relative priorities with regard to people and projects, the good of the company is your first and correct concern. Make this clear. Stress that you do, of course, have opinions on these matters, and that you will express them—in reports and communications with your superior, the correct channels for such things. You’re accountable to the manager you report to, and to the people who work for you. No one else has any business demanding to know your views.
The net effect will be that you will have brushed aside the attempt to draw you in, but you’ll have done so in a way that is unanswerable. You will have chosen the high road and made that clear.
And in those rare moments when it is your team or your superior pressing you to take a political stance, you must decide if the cause is just and appropriate. If not, honest reasoning with those pressing you is best; discourage a political solution, and argue in favor of a low-key presentation of information that mitigates the political issue.
When you’re legitimately concerned
If, on the other hand, your superior or your team is pressing you on an issue where your influence would be appropriate, respond openly and unambiguously. Take a position and make it clear, taking care to present the same facts and rationale to any who approach you. Perhaps an employee has been unfairly treated, and management is turning a deaf ear; or perhaps some project was scuttled by office politics, but truly deserves a second hearing. If you must take a stand on a political point, establish yourself as concerned and involved but above the game itself. Avoid the shadows.
In such moments, when the topic is sensitive and you must stand up and be counted, the rule is simple. “A leader leads in the open," Teddy Roosevelt pointed out. "The 'boss' is covert.” Stay in the open.
Scott Robinson is a 20-year IT veteran with extensive experience in business intelligence and systems integration. An enterprise architect with a background in social psychology, he frequently consults and lectures on analytics, business intelligence and social informatics, primarily in the health care and HR industries.