Office politics for techies

Techies seem to really dislike backchanneling and dealmaking. Mention office politics and the clich├ęs show up. Gossiping and he-said-she-said. Inept managers are promoted. Great solutions are dismissed in favour of some Big Consultancy bullshit product.

Here’s the thing: office politics are not optional. Whether you find them icky or not, they are a vital part of human collaboration. Most techies seem to want to insulate themselves from them, but there’s a catch. Choosing to not take part means sidelining yourself: those that don’t vote are governed as well.

You can be a dev who “just wants to code”. That’s OK if you’re cool with letting others take all decisions. But you can’t be a leader in tech and stay on the sidelines. The aversion of office politics is what stops techies from moving into leadership positions. If you want to build great products and great teams, you’ll have to get your hands dirty.

So, what are office politics?

Humans are not rational beings. We think we are. We’re not.

We like a team based on how it makes us feel. We prefer and dislike programming languages with an illogical passion. When project managers report on status, they sell feelings of optimism or dread. We are emotional beings.

When a bug is discovered, a ticket should be logged immediately“.

A great logical, rational plan. But what if that developer is having an unproductive week and just wants to get her feature done? What if she feels she’s the only one reporting bugs? What if she knows that obvious bug was introduced by a sloppy team member she’d like to expose?

Most of our plans follow a rational flow chart and IF-THEN statements. It’s how we write plans, but not how we operate on the floor. A simple input can have a hundred different outputs given the context.

Politics is the art of steering that fuzzy logic into a certain desired direction. In a world where “it depends” is the go-to answer, it’s all about increasing the odds of a certain outcome.

When I worked as a dev at Toyota, I had a very classical view of management. A bunch of suits get in a meeting room, discuss topic X and decide on a plan. That’s perfectly rational.

That’s not how it works at all. The Japanese have a concept called Nemawashi. A manager who would like to influence the way topic X is handled would prepare for that meeting by having informal talks with the participants. He would get to know how everybody feels about his proposed solution. He would see if he can adapt his plans a little to get a supported compromise.

Consultants who went into the meeting ready to defend their own solution, found themselves outmatched. The decision had already been made before the meeting even started!

Some of them complained about not getting the chance to defend their technically superior solution. Others adapted and started networking themselves. Guess which group was most successful?

Love it or hate it, a company is not a meritocracy. It’s not about who puts in the most hours. It’s not about the cleanest design.

It’s about networking and relationship building. It’s about gaining political capital in the organization. If that sounds dirty to your ears, you’ll have to get over that. We need more tech-savvy leaders. If you’re a team lead, engineering manager or architect, you better train those networking muscles.

Office politics are not optional. They are essential when navigating the wild seas of human interaction.

Leaders have no choice but to get good at them.