How tech leaders can better navigate organizational politics

When you think about people entangled in organizational politics, terms that come to mind include manipulation, self-serving, turf battles, power plays, and hidden agendas. Not terribly uplifting. But Neal Sample, former CIO of Northwestern Mutual, sees it a different way. “I think of a different set of words like influence, diplomacy and collaboration,” he says. “In reality, politics aren’t good or bad. It’s just how things get done in organizations.”

So how should we be more cognizant about office politics versus organizational politics now that the pandemic has shifted the former to the latter? Managers approach it in different ways but for tech leaders, it can be particularly challenging, something Sample calls the physics of IT.

“I think politics is really about getting a positive outcome when there is scarcity,” he says. “That’s what you’re trying to work for. That clinical definition has the idea of advancing one of your ideas, which I think is okay, as long as it lines up with a positive outcome whether it’s for shareholders, customers, clients or patients. Not every idea can’t be implemented, and that’s when politics comes into play. You have different groups with different ideas of what positive outcomes look like, and then it’s navigating those potentially choppy waters especially as an IT professional.”

Sample, whose career also includes roles at Express Groups, American Express, eBay, and Yahoo!, knows that ethically building critical mass of support for an idea you believe in is a textbook description of those who are politically savvy. But equal empathy for dissenting positions goes a long way to achieve beneficial outcomes.

Tech Whisperers podcast’s Dan Roberts recently spoke with Sample about the evolving nuances of organizational politics. Here are some edited excerpts of that conversation. Watch the full video below for more insights.

On leading equity: I think a lot of the old definitions of politics had to do with the physical space in the office, with relationships, tenure and a notion of favoritism: who had been around before, who had achieved before, who seemed to be in favor versus out of favor. And a lot of that goes away with online equity. But a virtual environment is complex for gathering a diversity of ideas. For example, we remember the first time we saw ourselves in little boxes outside the office in the early editions of Zoom, and there was a certain level of equity associated with it. We all had the same size real estate. On the other hand, people noticed an asymmetry in airtime. Unless you were very intentional about pulling people into a conversation, there was a chance that people who were otherwise shy or part of a marginalized group would be even more shy or more marginalized. It was actually easier to get lost in the conversation. People didn’t talk over each other or sidebar in a way that might have happened in a face-to-face meeting.

On the physics of IT: IT is a unique element of a business. In the notion of resource scarcity, we might want to get something done but then halfway through the year, even with an annual plan, a new idea comes up, or some M&A or a competitive threat emerges and we decide we need to change something. Inside of information technology, sometimes there are these tradeoffs—the physics of IT. You have one particular team that knows a system. They’ve been working on Problem A, and now they’re going to work on Problem B. Or you have a certain amount of capacity and throughput that’s sitting in a data center or in a legacy installation, and you can’t magically grow that by a factor of 10 because of your historical application services. In any way, IT has this notion of physics. There is a limit that happens sometimes with subject matter experts or resources. Other areas don’t have that conundrum. Sometimes you can solve the problem with money, but there are other elements of the workplace that aren’t constrained by the same set of resources, the same physics problems that IT have. Because of that intrinsic scarcity, IT is where the conflict often shows up.

On negotiation: As an IT professional, I’ve spent time learning from the world of business about how to be a good negotiator. One thing that was new to me years ago was the notion of a BATNA—your best alternative to a negotiated agreement. If you find yourself in negotiation, the first thing you have to figure out is what the best alternative is, which tells you what it’s like if you lose. It also tells you what your leverage is with a vendor, let’s say. You have to think about your pricing negotiation. Having that in mind, starting with seeing what it looks like to lose this negotiation, or not end up with the price you want, is incredibly powerful because then instead of talking about it like it’s an all or nothing, it’s really the difference between 100 and 80, but 80 at a lower price. You figure those things out. That is really powerful. What’s also interesting are contracts between IQ and EQ. I think folks used to be happy to be IQ-oriented professionals in technology. And a lot of time, we were thought of as sort of back-office cost control. But that switched to the notion that technology is the product or the experience, or powers the supply chain, is true just about everywhere now. The big difference, from a negotiating perspective, is because of the physics of IT and that tradeoffs happen in technology a lot, you have to be good with your EQ. Not even just dealing with a single partner but somebody who wants something from you. Sometimes, the battleground is two different business divisions or maybe two functions that both want something and suddenly, your job is to now be Switzerland.

On the good fight: We should all be fighting to win for the company, enterprise, organization. But politics is when we have different ideas, when there is scarcity and we can’t do everything. There has to be a tradeoff. If you fight to win, you’re going to set yourself up as an adversary. There’ll be an outcome that’s positive and negative—the classic win-lose. But if you fight to lose, the first thing you do is adopt the opposition idea, philosophy, product or approach—whatever you feel is competing with your proposal or idea. So then you adopt it as your own and spend time figuring out why the other side is right instead of doing research to back up your own position. For example, if you think going to Agile from Waterfall is the right thing to do, spend time trying to figure out why Agile doesn’t work. Then I guarantee two things will happen. You’ll either become more effective and persuasive with your own argumentation because you better understand the alternatives, or you might find yourself changing your mind. And from an office politics perspective, this is one of the best things that can happen for a long-term relationship, coming to a partner with humility. You demonstrate you have empathy and are a good partner because you are willing to compromise.

CIO, IT Leadership, IT Management, IT Strategy, Remote Work