Tips for the IT professional to manage workplace politics

Our IT industry exists because of experts – and lots of them.  We need experts to fuel innovation, develop new products, and… to be honest, help challenge the status quo. That fuels new industries, and opens up a world of possibilities for those up for the challenge.

With a deep expertise in a specific area, fuelled by an interest and passion in what you do, you are willing and able to contribute to unlocking the exciting potential inherent in modern digital technologies. You’re fast moving, innovative and up for the challenge. A bright future career awaits you?  Well… maybe. The reality is that it all depends on your context.

If you are an IT specialist who is buried within an organisation, where the potential value of your specialist skills, experience and insights is not being fully realised, this can be a real source of frustration.  Faced with the reality that seemingly obvious (to you at least) and high value recommendations can get completely bent out of shape by others or turned on their heads, your cumulative frustration is having a really corrosive effect on your engagement and commitment to your organisation.

Its a jungle out there

Workplace ‘politics’ can present a real challenge to the specialist. The melee of organisational structures, differing leadership styles, powerful egos, obscure agendas and personal incentives, perceived incompetence of others and the opacity of why decisions are made they way that are at times, all add up to an environment that can be rather daunting and confusing.  In reality, there are many concurrent versions of reality of enterprise IT – yours is only one.

On the other hand, there is comfort in the world of precision, discipline, certainty and rigour that is often associated with the specialist.

So, if you are a specialist who is expected to compromise your judgement or deliver a less than ideal solution this may be a hard pill to swallow. 

At the heart of this challenge, lies your ability to have an influence over people and situations where you have no direct authority.

Influence without authority

How can you influence those over whom you have no direct authority?

In addressing this challenging question, let’s explore the common categories of influence:

  • Expertise: You have the knowledge, skill and capability that others do not. Hopefully, your expertise is in demand. The key, however, is being able to communicate the intrinsic value of your expertise in terms others can understand. If you are a brain surgeon, then you need not spend much time explaining your intrinsic value to others. If, on the other hand, you are a mobility solutions business analyst, that may take more time to explain.
  • Coercive: Expertise couched in terms of a threat is not helpful.  “I know better than you, therefore you had better listen to what I have to say” is a conversation you may wish to avoid if you are in a business meeting.
  • Information: Only you have the information that others need.  However, this may undermine your ability to have influence after the information is passed onto others.  Conversely, any attempts at withholding legitimate information would be seen as uncooperative and unhelpful. The motto ‘knowledge is power’ is increasingly irrelevant in a world where the democratisation of information, knowledge and skill is on the ascendancy.

Increase your effectiveness

So, if you are employed as an expert in a specific domain of knowledge, how can you increase your effectiveness in bridging the divide between your expertise and those that don’t see it as intrinsically valuable?   Here are a few pointers:

  • Deliberately manage your reputation: What do you want others to be saying about you when you’ve left the room? Make a conscious effort to manage your reputation in the eyes of those with whom you come into contact. Remember, your project may last a year, but your reputation will endure. Leave your emotions at the door is often a good start.
  • Being ‘right’ is not always the right thing to do: Being dogmatically prescriptive on a particular solution or approach can be decidedly obstructive to those who have a broader perspective of the organisation. Realise the power of asking open questions to help raise the awareness of specific issues that others may not have considered. If you ask an open question on a topic that others have not yet considered, and it’s important to the outcome – that’s influence!
  • Communicate effectively: Trying to explain complexity to those that ‘don’t get it’ or don’t care can be frustrating. Practice the skill of using metaphors and analogies as a way of illustrating the key concepts. As a specialist, by definition, you will have the knowledge, skills and expertise that others do not. Expect others to not understand or do not want to understand your message.
  • Reassess your skill inventory: Understand what skills you need to succeed in your chosen career path, and work hard to develop these. Developing related competencies in areas other than your speciality is important if you wish to become a well-rounded, stand-out specialist. If you can chew gum, and are the world expert in chewing gum, then being able to walk and chew gum at the same time will really differentiate you.

At the end of the day, you have the power to help, influence and steer discussions to deliver positive outcomes. Use the power wisely.