One of the more common questions I get is for advice on how to deal with negative politics at their company.

"My boss's peer keeps shooting down my ideas. Every time I propose something, he shoots holes in it. Just yesterday, I suggested a way we save $3 million in hardware costs, and he just started complaining!"

I think for most of us, we'd rather ignore the political stupidity and just get our work done. It's so much more fun to accomplish things, build things, launch things, and generally do the main thing we're hired to do.

But that's not always the option in front of us. In reality, unless you're a one-person startup, there will be politics. There will be conflict. And those interpersonal issues tend to grow as you get more senior. So, it'll only become a larger part of your job as you gain in experience, and perhaps get a promotion or three.

Now, plenty of people argue that this is the reason that they don't want to become a manager, or they would rather not get promoted. "There's just too much political garbage at the staff level" they'll say.

I think that's a shame. Because it's often a misunderstanding of that political garbage that leads to ineffectual responses to it. Because this political garbage often has some logic behind it.

What is politics?

"It involves the use of power and social networking within a workplace to achieve changes that benefit the organization or individuals within it." Wikipedia

What does that mean in practical terms? It means that people wield social connections to impact personal and company direction.

I spoke at length in another article about why I felt office politics is sometimes a good thing, and can be used to accomplish things.

However, what I didn't address is the elephant in the room. Not all politics is about being more effective. Some politics feels pretty terrible, and seems to be aimed at being less productive.

Bad politics?

What types of bad politics am I referring to? A few examples I've heard recently, or seen in the past:

  • A peer who stabs you in the back every chance they get.
  • The VP who dismisses every idea you have, before you have a chance to even explain it.
  • The customer who complains unfairly about you.

These types of situations are unfortunately common, and one of the largest areas of frustration for employees. They're often the prelude to someone explaining to me why they're hunting for a new job.

Instead of just looking for a new job, there are a few ways you can attempt to deal with it.

Identify the conflict.

I think it's rare that people are jerks for fun. Oh, I certainly know people who don't go out of their way to be nice, but that's different from actively damaging someone's career for no reason.

When someone seems to be actively going out of their way to make your work life less pleasant, it's likely because they feel a need to diminish you.

What are they worried about? What makes them lash out?

  1. Do they and you have opposing goals?
  2. Are they trying to achieve something which you're trying to stop?
  3. Are you attempting to achieve something which threatens them in some way?
  4. Did you offend them in the past, or suggest that you're not working in their best interest?

There is frequently a logical reason why someone is causing issues. Well, perhaps not logical, but you can often find an explanation.

Over and over again, I'll see people complain about office politics, but not invest the effort in understanding the other person.

Coaching client - "It's so hard to just do my job when my peer is constantly belittling me in meetings."

Me - "Why would they do that?"

Client - "I have no idea. They just constantly make snide comments. I've tried complaining to my boss, but it's not done in front of my boss, so they can't do anything about it."

Me - "Do they do that to everyone? Did you do something to offend them?"

Client - "No, just me. And I have no idea!"

Me - "Have you sat down with them, and asked them about their hostile behavior?"

Client - "No, I wouldn't know what to say."

It's rare that someone would randomly choose to interfere with your success, complain about you, or insult you. If you don't know the source of their attitude, you'll never be able to deal with it.

Heidi walked into my office, a look of frustration on her face. Heidi was one of the development managers on my team.

I inwardly groaned. I guessed at the source of her frustration, and it meant more stress for me.

"Again!" Heidi exclaimed. She sat down with a huff. "I swear Marion is out to get me. I stopped by Lauri's desk to ask about the availability for a few more hosts (Lauri was the head of operations, and also controlled our spare hosts). We're launching our feature in a few weeks, and we expect a spike in traffic. I don't think we need them, but I was just being extra safe. Except Marion was nearby. He said that our lack of preparation had him concerned. And you just know he's not going to drop it. He'll probably mention it in our launch readiness meeting tomorrow."

I nodded. She was totally right. Marion was likely to mention it in the meeting. It was a big meeting too. This was a highly visible project.

Marion was a peer of mine. His team had work to complete on the project that Heidi was leading, but I couldn't figure out why he seemed to repeatedly suggest that Heidi's team wasn't ready. Over the last week, he'd repeatedly made remarks about Heidi's team, and hinted (without specifics) that they were cutting things close. I was convinced that Marion didn't know Heidi before this project, so it made no sense that he'd have a grudge against her in particular.

I asked, "Since Marion doesn't know you, does anyone on his team have an issue with you? Perhaps you're butting heads with them?"

Heidi shook her head. "No, nothing. Their work is supposed to finish up this week, and then they're done. No issues, no conflicts."

I thought about it a bit. I was quite familiar with the stupid political games people play.

"Do you know if Marion's teams are on track to launch this week?" I asked.

Heidi shrugged. "I assume so? They didn't bring up any concerns."

"Let me get back to you." I told Heidi.

I walked over to where our QA group sat, and spoke to Elbert, the head of QA.

"Hey Elbert! Quick question. Do you know how QA is going on Heidi's project?"

Elbert nodded, "Yeah, it's mostly good. She's been doing a great job. The only thing we haven't been able to fully test is Marion's component. They said repeatedly over the last week that they were almost ready to test, but keep slipping for some reason. We're a bit behind, but assuming they get it merged today or tomorrow, I think we'll be ok?"

Yup. That was almost certainly it.

You see, there's a running joke in the management of large projects at large companies. You are ok being late, as long as you're not the latest. More importantly, you're ok being late, as long as someone else has to admit to being late first.

If you have 25 teams doing work, and a ton of visibility, you really don't want your team being the one that delays all 25 teams. So plenty of managers find themselves playing chicken with the date. You know you're not going to hit it, but others are unlikely to hit it as well. So, you hope that someone else will declare that they'll need to slip the date, which will give you a reprieve as well.

It's a goofy game, but common. And I was pretty certain that's precisely what Marion was doing. He knew his team was running behind, so he was trying to have Heidi admit that her team was running behind. He could then declare, as a concerned leader, that for the safety of our customers, we should just delay the project. And as if by magic, his team would look fine, and Heidi would look like she'd messed up her project.

It's annoying. And yet, there's not an easy fix. I didn't want Heidi to fall on the sword. Marion had influence, and every project has gaps. It would be relatively easy for Marion to have concern about something he identified, and convince people that Heidi's project should slip.

So, what were our options?

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