Paul Glen: Think politics aren't part of your job? Think again
In the course of consulting for and coaching IT managers, the complaints I hear most often involve politics. "I'd love my job if it weren't for the politics." "This would be a great place to work if not for the politics." "Politics aren't my job. Why do I spend so much time on them?"
These frustrations are usually expressed with an underlying sadness or even anger. The persistent presence and gritty reality of politics come as a surprise and a disappointment to most technical managers.
I think this is so because many managers hold the following deep-seated misconceptions about the role of politics in the corporation:
Politics shouldn't be necessary. Many managers figure that if everyone is focused on the best interests of the business, there should be no need to argue so much over priorities and turf.
Politics represent a failure. If you believe that politics are unnecessary, then you are also likely to believe that creating alliances and undermining other people or ideas is the result of a moral failing. If a manager holds such a viewpoint, then politics will always seem to be driven primarily by negative forces, including misperception, miscommunication, self-centeredness, greed, pride, ambition and neurosis.
Playing at politics is not in my job description. Most IT managers rise through the technical ranks. The virtues they aspire to involve building and maintaining quality systems and providing quality technical services. So it's natural that technical managers come to the job assuming that their most important responsibility is to oversee the creation and support of technology. They view politics, at best, as a distraction from their primary mission and an obstacle to progress.
But the reality is that politics will never be expunged from professional life, and that is mainly because they play a very positive role. Those three misconceptions should be stood on their head:
Politics are a necessary part of the provision of technical services. The notion of politics as a diversion rests on a misunderstanding of what politics are about in the first place. Politics are not the seamy underbelly of management. They are the way groups make decisions about priorities, processes and resource allocation. If managers want their building and maintenance plans to be considered important enough for the organization to invest the required money and attention, they need to engage in the political process.
Politics are a form of cooperation. Since organizations need to make collective decisions, politics do not represent a failure but a necessary function. It's true that sometimes the animating forces driving a particular issue or person may be unsavory. And the culture in which politics are carried out may not be healthy or functional. But the politics themselves are a separate matter.
Politics really are a big part of your job. Political astuteness is one of the most important tools you have for creating an environment in which people can develop and maintain great technology. You need to acquire the resources, attention and prestige necessary to deliver value to the organization. As managers move up the ladder, overseeing the actual provision becomes a smaller and smaller portion of the job, and politics become a bigger and bigger one.
To rage against immutable truths is to court disappointment. Being successful as a technical manager requires reconceptualizing politics and reconciling yourself to their role in the job.