As a manager, you may be tempted to shield your team from politics as much as you possibly can. Let’s talk about why that’s not always a good idea.
Organizational politics gets a bad rap.
On the one hand, individual contributors often see politics as a hindrance to their work. “If only we didn’t have to get John and Lisa to sign off on every change my team wants to make, we could move much quicker!” The games and the horse trading and the people-pleasing all seem ancillary and unnecessary from this perspective.
But on the other hand, politics as the embodiment of the organization’s values and goals can often work to move the organization forward and ensure that the many differing objectives throughout the company are satisfied.
This positive definition of politics is often called culture, so you may want to try reading this article and substituting the word “culture” for “politics” to see if it changes your perception.
Common sources of conflict
Conflict in an organization often arises from groups who have different objectives. Here are some common ones:
Development vs. Operations Development wants to release new features quickly, sometimes even at the cost of platform reliability. Operations wants to keep production changes to a minimum to safeguard stability.
QA vs. Development Quality Assurance wants to ensure the fewest possible defects are released, even if that means the schedule slips. Development wants to reduce the inventory of unreleased code, even if it’s not all perfect.
Design vs. Implementation User Experience or User Interface designers want to ensure that the product meets the needs of the users, even if it is difficult or costly to implement. The delivery team (development, QA, project management) wants to prioritize velocity, productivity, return on investment, or some other metric, even if it sometimes means customers don’t get exactly what they need.
Such dichotomies exist among these and many other groups in the organization, including sales, marketing, support, executives, and shareholders.
From one perspective, all these conflicting goals seem like a hindrance. Development could move much faster if it weren’t for the “interference” of QA or ops, and they would have a much easier time if it weren’t for the high quality standards demanded by support and UI/UX.
But an organization that favors one of these groups disproportionately over any of the others would be dysfunctional. Development’s velocity is meaningless without delivering value to the customers, and “value” has many different facets that each need to be weighed against the others. Each group represents one of those facets.
Embracing the conflict
One of the tricky lines you walk as a manager is deciding when to shield your team from the politics around the organization and when to let them struggle and figure it out.
You didn’t get to this point in your career just by being an exceptional cog in the machine, good only at working within a limited scope and not interacting with anyone outside your team.
Instead, you got here by understanding and welcoming the divergent viewpoints and needs of the teams throughout the organization. You learned how to make compromises, when to defer to other groups and when to fight for your own needs. Someone gave you those opportunities to engage with other groups and learn how to work effectively with them.
Here are some of the pros and cons to shielding your team from politics:
|Allows your employees to focus on their work||Team members don’t develop the political skills necessary for cross-team collaboration|
|Increased initial productivity because of fewer distractions||Productivity may reach limits sooner because the gains from collaboration can’t be realized|
|Easier to engage in blame games and siloed thinking when other groups are viewed as inferior or obstructionist|
Without understanding the greater context of their team within the organization, an employee’s career growth can easily be stunted. If your goal is to develop and nurture your employees’ careers, you must help them learn the hard lessons of mastering the political environment of your organization.
Teaching your team about politics
You’ll want to do this gradually so your employees can become acquainted with the people, customs, and processes that represent the relevant political forces they need to deal with. Doing this too quickly can lead to complaining or burn-out, which aren’t good for morale.
Make a list of the people you work with at least once or twice a month, excluding your employees. Next, write down the primary function this person performs, and identify what types of projects your team does that usually need to involve them. This could be certain areas of the codebase, particular customers, or a business function such as sales or operations.
Now, go through each person on your team and identify a project they work on that would benefit from a better relationship with one of the people on your list. Think of a way to encourage them, little by little, to build that relationship in constructive and mutually beneficial ways.
Sometimes you will need to be there with the person all along the way. Other times, it will be better to simply make the introduction and leave the rest to your employee. Find what is right for each person and situation and let them flourish.
Shield when necessary, but not forever
Sometimes you need to remove the distractions temporarily, and that’s fine. Go ahead and protect your team from the politics when it makes sense. But don’t always be the one on the front lines fighting for your team. Let your employees take some of those opportunities. It will help them build their confidence and forge their reputation as a valuable, collaborative political player themselves.