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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.

When it comes to your team, it's essential that you identify the operators and then either change their behavior or replace them. Doing nothing will sap the motivation and momentum of your performers, who may even begin to leave.

Identifying operators who work for you isn't as hard as you might think. I routinely had meetings with all levels of my staff and told the intervening levels of management that I wanted to deal with the team members directly without their involvement. Any manager who nonetheless showed up at such a meeting was behaving like an operator: Such managers felt compelled to find out who was saying what to me, and they couldn't bear the thought that their reports might be talking about them or how they were treated. If no managers show up but no one at the meeting can suggest any improvements and no one engages in unguarded dialog, you probably have found another operator. Staffers who report to an operator often feel too intimidated to talk honestly even when the operator isn't around. Another good tip-off that someone is an operator is an inordinate amount of self-serving credit-taking. Keep in mind that operators who report to you consider you to be upper management, and operators are always trying to present themselves to upper management as the one worthy and reliable person at their level. Everyone should be allowed to take a bow now and then, but with operators, this tendency is excessive.

If you report to an operator, you have more work of another kind to do, but if you are diligent, you will be left alone and have plenty of time to make good and lasting things happen with your team.

You should start to guard your flank as soon as you suspect that the person you report to is an operator. (You don't have to confirm your suspicion; the precautions that I recommend taking are in themselves innocuous, and if it later turns out that your boss is a performer, no harm done.)

Operators thrive on informality, which makes it easier for them to rewrite history or feign convenient amnesia as they contradict your version of events and agreements. To protect yourself, you must become a master of formality. You have to adopt the rigorous habit, as soon as possible after every meeting, of drafting a concise e-mail that reviews the course of action that was decided on, the direction that was given to you, the exact parameters of any assignment given to you, and time frames that were agreed to. My memos tended to start off with a statement such as "I have already begun to implement the actions we discussed at today's meetings, but before my people get too far along, I want to ensure that I haven't misunderstood anything." Then I would go on to outline everything as I recalled it, and I would always close with words such as "Please let me know if anything in this e-mail does not reflect what you understood."


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