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Politics in IT: Separate operators from performers

Al Kuebler | Feb. 7, 2011
There's politics in IT. Are you shocked to hear it? I didn't think so. But it can be negotiated. It comes down to knowing what sorts of people are around you. I'll get to that in a bit, along with some advice for dealing with the bad players, but first let me tell you about two times in my career when politics came to the fore.

Operators focus on pleasing upper management, being in control of all aspects of their organization and using any achievement to their utmost advantage. They tend to hire people less capable than themselves, sycophants who can be controlled, mostly by intimidation. That helps assure that upper management won't see anyone more capable to promote or replace them with; by default, they look like the only go-to person in the department. Any direct report who is capable and unintimidated is seen as a threat. If the employees who are perceived as threatening can't be bullied, they are subjected to a campaign of informal new requirements meant to encourage their departure. An operator's ethics can be summed up as "whatever it takes," which means that any good ideas will be appropriated, i.e., stolen. They have no compunction about spending time and resources trying to find out whom to blame for a mistake. Again, educational background is not an indicator, but operators are not knowledgeable about what they do; in their minds, taking training would be an admission that they don't know something. Their management style is reactive, and so they often have to accommodate surprises that would not have happened if they had a knowledgeable strategy in place. Worse, they actually like things this way; they figure that if they are seen to be the first person to throw water on a fire, they will be perceived as a hero, even if they started the fire in the first place. If someone you have pegged as an operator makes you feel important, you can be certain that they need something from you and that the situation is temporary. Operators love to flaunt any symbols of power they accumulate. Even the remote possibility of the limelight attracts them. If they work hard, you can bet that the sole reason is to be perceived by upper management as a performer. They are masters of creative half-truths, innuendo and stalling tactics such as "I'll certainly get back to you on that." At bottom, they are very insecure, always scared of being found out. I have seen more than my share, and once again, I have names.

Operating with operators

I think I'm safe in assuming that most of the people who are reading this are performers; learning from someone else's experiences is not an operator mode of operation. There's no need to tell you anything about how to work with other performers, other than to pay attention and be prepared to learn. But performers need to protect themselves from operators at all levels, whether you report to them or have some on your own team. (It happens to the best of us.)


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