The successful CIO’s trick to mastering politics
Politics gets bad press. Or is it rep?
When a CIO comes up with an unsuccessful transformation initiative, they often complain that politics got in their way. They might even add the once humorous, now tired definition – that politics gets its name from “poly” (many) followed by the name of a popular blood-sucking arachnid: “tick”.
Their fellow CIOs nod in support, sympathetic to the horror of it all.
Unfortunately, these CIOs have the situation exactly upside down. As a rule, it is the lack of politics—and a leader’s lack of skill in the art of politics—that destroys good ideas and impedes progress.
You see, politics is what happens whenever an organization needs two (or more) people to make a decision. That is, politics is part of every major organizational decision.
Of course, there are exceptions – situations in which everyone who should support a decision fully agrees with everyone who should support it. It’s as likely an event as each molecule of oxygen, through random movement, ends up in the same corner of a room, suffocating the unlucky occupants. The laws of organizational dynamics don’t argue against it, any more than the laws of physics keep oxygen evenly distributed. They simply make it highly unlikely that everyone involved in a decision will fully agree with the others.
Politics is a skill set to be honed, not a problem to be overcome. IT leaders who find themselves navigating organizational politics can do so successfully, starting with the basic facts of relationship value versus transaction value. Here’s how.
When winning loses more than losing
Imagine that your company is about to launch a crucial strategic initiative. You want it. Do like many others with as much talent and ambition as you.
You pull a few threads, gossip a little, and do whatever else you have to, all without violating your sense of business ethics, and in the end you win.
Except it’s not “at the end”. This is the beginning, because you find out when, for the initiative to succeed, you need the support of those who did not get the green light.
You need it, and you just don’t seem to get it.
Not only that, but the next move you want goes to someone else, along with the next few, and most likely with that the promotion you wanted went to someone else.
That’s when you discover that more often than not, winning isn’t all it takes to be, because winning is a transaction – an event. These are relationships that endure or fall apart after the transaction.
Consider every organizational decision you are involved in as a transaction that you can win — the decision follows you — or lose. The figure below illustrates the situation. Every time you win, you register the satisfaction of a victory. But at the same time, each victory reduces the confidence of your peers in you.
Every time you win and others lose, that is, you increase the resistance of the organization towards you. Not to the next thing you want to win.
IDG / IT Catalysts
Each victory damages the relationships you depend on to be politically effective. Indeed, the relations depend on:
- do favors
- Help solve problems
- Asking for help to solve one of your problems (strangely, asking for help strengthens a relationship more than giving it)
- Maintain confidentiality
- Provide support – especially political support
- Find acceptable compromises
- Concede a point
- Showing interest in the other party as a person, even when – especially when – there is nothing they can do for you right now
Review the list and you will see that there is nothing like what you win and someone else loses.
In fact, some of the relationship factors on the list deliberately turn wins into partial wins. Others expose vulnerabilities. Ask for help; finding acceptable compromises instead of insisting on doing things the “right” way (defined as “your way”); and, most importantly, conceding a point instead of insisting on being right about all things all the time exemplifies what is needed to maintain and improve the relationships on which your long-term success depends.
Winner/winner versus just winner
Building success on relationships is not the same as the old cliche advice for finding “win/win” solutions.
It’s not that win/win solutions are bad things. It’s that a win/win solution presupposes that you and the other party are face to face on opposite sides of the metaphorical table.
Win/win is the recommended outcome of most negotiations.
When it comes to building and maintaining relationships that survive transactions, the other person or others are, in principle, on the same side as you. It’s not a negotiation. It’s a collaboration. This means structuring the conversation accordingly: you and everyone else involved need to think of yourselves as leaders of the whole company, not just the silo you’re leading right now.
This means that win/win just isn’t enough. You should, openly and by example, insist on being able to “win”.