Office Politics 101 for Recovering Idealists
In writing my book, I find that I wind up with these thoughts, paragraphs and mini-essays that may or may not find their way into the book. I’m adding to Leanpub sequentially, but writing relevant things as they occur to me, so there are bits floating around, waiting to have a home. I’m going to appropriate one of those bits today, as a blog post, since this is on the fringe of “maybe it will fit, maybe not.”
You almost certainly play the game of office politics, whether you do so deliberately or not. If there are more than two people involved in something, there are politics, so if you work for a company or project of more than two people, you’re involved. Saying, “I stay out of office politics and just work,” is like saying, “I don’t vote or follow elections, so I’m not really involved in laws and policies.” You can certainly opt out of participation in the process, but you can’t opt out of the consequences of that process.
Becoming good at office politics is a messy endeavor, involving a lot of intuition, trial and error, and real life, career consequences. It’s also unpleasant for a lot of people. But if you take away one piece of advice on how to navigate the minefield, let it be this: stop giving away information for free because information is leverage.
Anatomy of a Promotion
I’ll come back to the idea of free information in a bit. First, I’d like to set the stage by talking about what promotions actually look like. If you’re a line-level employee and always have been, you probably have an intense case of spotlight effect when you imagine how the process of a promotion for you works. That is, you probably think that your manager (or whoever it is that decides on employee advancement) carefully weighs all options, ruminates about whose performance has the most all-around merit, and does her absolute best to uphold the meritocracy of “good work is rewarded.”
It’s very unlikely that this is what actually happens, though. What’s most likely is that the manager already knows, come decision time, who is earmarked for promotion. What’s also quite likely is that who gets promoted is only tangentially related to meritocratic concerns. So, come promotion time for someone, if you’re not the one with the inside track, you probably get a solid 10 or 20 seconds of consideration ahead of a, “nah.” You think they’re reviewing your credentials, looking over your prior perf reviews, and considering you thoughtfully, but that’s quite unlikely.
Whether consciously or not, savvy managers, steeped in office politics will tend to optimize for self-interest, and optimizing for self-interest in promotions and advancement below them is a risk-minimizing activity rather than a value-maximizing activity. What I mean is, if a manager promotes “Bob the Developer” to “Bob the Team Lead” and Bob knocks the new role out of the park, Bob is the one who benefits with an implicit fast-tracking for a sharp rise. It’s a small, but relatively unimportant win for the manager. If, on the other hand, the Bob promotion is a train wreck, it reflects very poorly on the manager. If Bob is unremarkable and just keeps the lights on and trains running in the new role, it’s pretty neutral.
If you run the expected value calculation on this in your head, you discover that the manager is going to want to optimize for not rocking the boat by swinging for the fences; she’s incented to install a blue chip, known commodity. Thus your goal for securing promotions via the inside track is not to be high achieving and brilliant so much as it is to be reliable and predictable. And, who are we kidding, “reliable and predictable” are not the traits generally used to describe those who have clawed their way to a dominant position astride the meritocratic mount of achievement.
To secure a promotion, you need to be perceived by decision makers as reliable and predictable. And, more importantly, you need to be perceived as more reliable and predictable than other potential promotion candidates, most of whom are probably your peers. After all, in organizations with pyramid shaped power structures, advancement is a zero sum game, notwithstanding corporate tendency to attempt to frame it as a positive sum one. You have to elbow your way past people who likely consider you to be a friend, and this touches at the heart of what opportunists sacrifice; getting ahead is a lonely, conscience-grating struggle. (If you’re not familiar with my use of the term opportunists, see this post where I establish definitions of the corporate hierarchy).
If you want to get ahead, you need to be more reliable and predictable, which means that you need decision makers to consider your competition to be less reliable and predictable. It may quite reasonably be that you don’t have a stomach for this, but, even if you don’t, I suggest reading on because it will help you understand what others are doing to you.
Information Security in Office Politics
Now then, let’s get back to information and leverage. In a landscape where you’re competing fiercely to be seen as an asset for those with promotion authority, information about reliability or lack thereof is the main currency with which the players at this poker game compete. To be clear about what I mean, consider the following scenario between Bob, our hero, and Alice, a competitor of his for advancement. Bob and Alice have recently met with a contact person named Charlie at a new client at the request of their boss, Diana.
Driving back together from the client site, Bob starts to vent. “Can you believe what a smarmy idiot that Charlie was? I’m so tired of management setting us up to fail with projects like this – dealing with these companies that nickel and dime everyone to death and make our lives miserable. I was sitting in a meeting with our CTO and I even heard the head of sales admit that their whole strategy was premised around loss leader projects. And that’d be fine if the misery of staffing new clients was evenly distributed, but Diana, in her infinite wisdom, assigns most of the new client work to us. This place is ridiculous.”
“Yeah, it can be frustrating,” Alice offers sympathetically. She then focuses on driving.
Now think about this for a minute. Unprompted, Bob offers up the following:
- He doesn’t like Charlie (and probably would blow his top around him, if pressed).
- He views the position of being assigned to new clients as being “set up to fail,” meaning he’s not fully aware of the strategic value of his position.
- The company’s sales strategy vis a vis loss leaders, which management may have considered ears only. (And, which Alice could actually prove he did, since how else would she now know?)
- He doesn’t, apparently, think much of Diana and could be baited into showing as much.
A week later, Alice and Bob have just settled in for a meeting with Diana. An hour earlier, Alice had received an email from Charlie, requesting a statement of work. On seeing it, Alice had to chuckle to herself because Bob was right — Charlie really is an idiot. They had left a copy of the SOW with him during their in-person meeting last week. As they’re sitting down for the meeting with Diana, Alice glances at her phone and tells a little fib: “I just noticed another email from Charlie. He wants a copy of the SOW.”
Diana is about to open her month to say that it sounds like a reasonable request when Bob launches into a mini-tirade about Charlie. After a moment, he notices Diana furrowing her brow, so he explains that they’d already given him the SOW, but it doesn’t matter. The seed is planted in Diana’s head. Bob is a risk when dealing with clients.
Another week later, Alice and Diana are having coffee and Diana asks how things are going with Charlie. Alice replies, “I think the project is starting off smoothly and I’m impressed with Bob. He clearly doesn’t like Charlie, but he’s keeping a good poker face. That’s doubly impressive when you consider that he’s probably frustrated to be on a loss leader project.”
Diana frowns and asked who told her that it was a loss leader project, but she already thinks she knows the answer. Alice mugs a guilty look, glances down at her feet and says, “oh, no one. I mean, I just assumed, I guess that was the strategy. Forget I said anything.” Diana thinks it’s admirable that Alice tried to cover her ‘slip’ but she knows that Bob must have a big mouth. And, come to think of it, he sounds a little unreliable even from Alice’s praise. After all, she’s praising him for not being unprofessional?
Consider Alice’s approach here. She’s happy to listen to others vent and to offer platitudes in exchange, but she gives away nothing of import. Every sentence of hers examined seems quite vanilla, harmless, and like what a good team player would say. And yet, she’s very subtly planted seeds in her boss’s mind that Bob is not reliable or predictable — he’s a loose cannon that might go off at the wrong time.
Bob may or may not be a better worker or strategist than Alice — maybe even by far — but she’s much better at the politics game than he is. He vents, huffs, puffs, and worst of all, offers up information in exchange for nothing. He blabs sensitive strategy, wears dislikes on his sleeve, and generally acts indignant and entitled because of what he perceives to be his own competence and acumen. Alice… well, Alice just listens and makes seemingly innocent observations.
None of this is to say that you can’t talk at work. The overwhelming majority of subjects are utterly unimportant. If you want to offer up information about local sports teams, the weather, television, or almost any social topic, go nuts. Likewise, offering up mundane logistical and implementation information is usually harmless. If you’ve discovered a helpful browser plugin for doing research or something, you don’t stand to lose by sharing that information. Being knowledgeable, in a vacuum, will help your reputation.
Where you start to run into problems when offering up information is when that information would affect the way a decision-making power broker would view you and your colleagues in terms of dependability should you or they be given additional power. If your browser plugin, rather than just helping with research, enables you to hit deadlines with substantially more predictability than your colleagues, that browser plugin is information worth leveraging and that should not be given away for free.
I realize that this sounds incredibly mercenary since giving it to everyone would be in the company’s best interests, but the company’s best interests are not necessarily your best interests nor are they necessarily your boss’s. By all means, share the productivity discovery, but do it in such a way where you profit from the information. Do a demo for your boss and let her roll it out to the group. She increments her opinion of your reliability (you’re reliable enough that you can make others more reliable) and the company benefits as well. (The most successful companies are the ones where it’s easiest to align your own personal best interests with those of the organization.)
Understanding which information is good as leverage and which is not worthwhile is something that doesn’t come quickly or easily. But it will come with practice. In the meantime, there’s a pretty easy rule of thumb to follow. When in doubt, keep it to yourself. Listen more than you speak and certainly more than you vent, collect as much information as possible, and ponder how it can be used to make yourself seem more of an asset to your boss than your competitors.
If this all sounds very cynical, there’s good reason for that — corporate office politics is a manufacturer of weaponized cynicism. In theaters where the value delivered by an individual becomes harder and harder to measure (e.g. at really large organizations), we’re left to navigate the situation as fallible humans relying on intuition and gut feelings. Better outcomes could be had if employee performance could easily be tied to venture profitability. Organizational politics can be dramatically reduced wholesale, and that’s the end for which I prefer to strive. But absent that (or as I prefer to think, until we achieve it) you may as well know how the game works, so you can make a fully informed decision how, and if, to play.