Politics, Oh Politics


I tweeted something a while back which resonated with a few folks:

I do find people find “politics” to be a loaded term. The way I frame it for them is that knowing how to “navigate the org” Is essential. They all seem to want that skill, even if they don’t know how to get it.

There is an essential point here, even if I wrapped it in a poorly worded Tweet.

Why Do Engineers Hate Politics?

Many engineers grow to hate politics after seeing their boss’ approach to politics.

Horror stories I hear from others range from the petty (skipping a meeting with another department head over a minor difference) to the severe (jockeying for position to further a purely self-serving goal). These are examples of what I call an asshole’s idea of politics.

If others see the above as playing politics, it can create a cognitive dissonance: if playing politics means being a jerk, do I need to be a jerk to be better at my job?

Aside from being a terrible way to live, being a jerk is what jerks in power want you to think this is about. Politics does not mean being a jerk to others nor treating every relationship as transactional. There’s a more honest approach:

A large part of politics is wrapped up in understanding how organizations work.

A New Term for “Politics”

People have a hard time discerning director-level positions from senior-level positions. Is it just the title and comp? This issue arises when companies need a “more senior, senior manager” and are unsure of the optics. It also comes up from candidates who are uncertain what the expectations are of a “director-level” role or what it means for their career.

A director role’s most distinguishing feature isn’t technical expertise or analytical ability. It is the person’s ability to navigate an organization to produce results.

This is what politics looks like in practice.

So how do you navigate an organization? What does that mean?

The 4 Ways to Navigate an Organization

  1. Get to know people (in other departments)
  2. Connect unrelated groups
  3. Resolve conflicts outside your team
  4. Disregard the hierarchy

Get to know people in other departments

In which ways do your peers excel? What are they not so great at? Let them get to know you the same way. Doing this does not mean committing to more recurring meetings. It is about building situational awareness of people involved in your company’s decision-making function.

Authenticity matters. If you come off as a creep secretly building dossiers on all your colleagues, nobody will want to talk to you.

Connect Unrelated Groups

You don’t need to be the benefactor of every relationship, nor do your teams need to benefit from every relationship you help create. If a relationship between two parties makes sense, you facilitate its creation. Sometimes it’s just making introductions; other times, it’s championing the merging of two teams.

The only thing that matters is that you are right about something and that your reasoning is sound. Unlike a senior manager, a director is still an active participant in these outcomes, even if all they do is act as a catalyst.

Resolving Conflicts From the Outside

Organizations tend to get siloed in places, and when conflicts arise, they can slowly (over months or even years) decay the rest of the organization’s ability to adapt. Senior managers often look for pre-established consensus to act (which is why you see these issues in siloed orgs). Still, these are conflicts where consensus is lacking and need (ahem) direction and an understanding of the org dynamics.

The CTO or CEO often shouldn’t get involved in these cases. Even the most likable CEO can come off as heavy-handed, ruling “by edict” or micro-managing. Directors are the people who should run the show at this level.

Disregard the Hierarchy

You will need to share some pretty harsh truths with folks, whether they are your directs, your peers, or even the CEO. You can’t let your place in the org chart dictate who you can or can’t work with. Consider this a hard requirement for the job: ignore the org hierarchy.

The best organizations value transparency and feedback, but they don’t miraculously appear out of thin air– fantastic orgs are built through example. If you perpetuate or ignore problem areas, you won’t be effective at steering things.

The director’s ability to do their job is increasingly tied to outcomes and the resilience of the org itself and not their place in an org chart. A director must understand the politics at play.

If you are a director or above, the org chart is a guide and only a guide to how you should approach the organization. It shouldn’t hold you back from helping people do the right thing.

So am I fired?

The above list may seem daunting to many managers, but some people are exceedingly good at and comfortable with this part of the job.

I wish more organizations would make the requirement explicit that successful director-level candidates have demonstrated the ability to navigate their existing orgs. I have thoughts on why that is (or isn’t) the case, but that’s a separate post.

For other engineers, even if none of the above is a job requirement for you, it may be someday. I believe it helps to know a bit about what “politics” looks like as you progress through your career and get comfortable with it.