There Are No Rules To Politics

There are no rules to politics. That might be sad to say. You might not like that statement. But it’s essentially true, and essential to understand.

Apart from my (mostly) regular missives here, I write a monthly article over at projectmanagement.com. My most recent post explores disaster recovery for projects. Not how to manage disaster recovery projects, mind you; how to recover when it’s your project that’s the disaster.

That is a fundamentally political process. There are challenges in simply understanding the scope of the problem, because in the face of impending failure many of us engage in the all-too-human behaviour of trying to put a positive spin on things. We dissemble, downplay, soft pedal and in every other way make like the situation isn’t quite so catastrophically cataclysmic as it is.

When projects go sideways, we need to confront the truth. We need to objectively assess where we are, and how we are doing. We need to communicate both the extent of the damage, our strategies for moving forward, and our assessment of how confident we are of being able to pull our project out of the fire. We need to manage expectations with a broad array of stakeholders, from sponsors to team members to stakeholders to casual bystanders rubbernecking at the accident on the side of the road.

That’s a tall order. It takes a lot of work and talent to manage a complex project in the first place. And it takes even more effort to recover a difficult project once it goes off the rails. I’ve done it more than a few times, and I’ve deftly veered a few more back between the lines when they were careening sharply towards the ditch. It’s not easy, and it requires a balance of skill, confidence, competence, political maneuvering, marketing and not a small amount of luck.

The article outlined strategies of how to think about disaster management for failing projects. It outlined a number of considerations and options for assessing, responding to and mitigating the impact of an impending catastrophe. It reflects many of the things I’ve learned the hard way, and is built on an understanding of organizational functioning, political behaviour, human emotions and decision biases—particularly biases that tend to amplify the negative, making any problematic situation exponentially much worse than it might otherwise be.

It would be easy to take my column as a recipe for project recovery. And that would be wrong. Yes, it’s action oriented. It describes a great deal of what needs to be considered, and approaches to attempt. It outlines what to do. But it doesn’t say how. Each point, for all of its relevance, has hiding behind it a range of possibilities. But which action do you take, in which circumstance? That is the art. That’s where my favourite answer once again makes an appearance. That’s where we get to “it depends.”

What prompted this discussion was one of the many comments that appeared in the time since the article was posted. In part, it said “…there are two things of high importance mentioned in the article, for which I couldn’t find [a] systematic approach: politics in organizations and psychologically-rooted reluctance of stakeholders to deal with issues.” As wonderful as it might seem that there should be systematic approaches and rules of follow in these situations, there aren’t. They don’t exist.

I understand the appeal, don’t get me wrong. And I get that there are people that want right answers, that prefer to see the world in black and white, and that don’t really like—or at least aren’t comfortable with—the infinite shades of grey that make up how the world actually works. “It depends” makes navigating life more challenging and difficult. Not having a clear, single strategy means that we run the risk of further failure. That, to put not too fine a point on this, is why we make the big bucks.

If we could reduce everything to rules, if we could define strategies that say “if this, do that,” for everything, life would certainly be easier. We wouldn’t have doubts. We wouldn’t have nagging questions or gnawing anxiety about what to do, or not do, to navigate forward. We’d probably sleep better at night. At the same time, we likely wouldn’t be needed in the jobs and professions we’re in. And we’d undoubtedly be a lot more anxious about getting replaced by a computer sometime in the very near future.

Navigating the politics of solving problems and awkward situations is the stuff of which our jobs and careers are made. It is what makes our roles interesting and challenging, even while there are perhaps times that we’d like a little bit less excitement. Solving problems, resolving dilemmas and responding to looming disasters is uniquely what we are good at as human beings.

While there are no hard and fast rules, it’s possible to get better at navigating politics, contemplating complexity or understanding uncertainty. Having been a student of personal and political behaviour for most of my career, I’ve come a long way from the point where I started. At the same time, I’m acutely aware of how much more there is to learn and understand. For everything we know, there is always more to learn, and even what we know is open to oversight and misinterpretation.

An excellent example, for me, can be found with Daniel Kahneman. A winner of the Nobel prize in economics, Kahneman’s contribution has been—with his colleague Amos Tversky—to help shape the essential foundations of behavioural decision making and the role of decision making biases. What delighted me in reading his book Thinking, Fast and Slow was his acknowledgement that, despite his deep and unquestionable expertise in how we are deceptive to bias, he’s just as vulnerable to being influenced by them in making decisions as the rest of us. One can know and understand human functioning and foibles, and yet still be entirely susceptible to them.

As it is with bias, so too it is in terms of emotions, attitudes, influence and political behaviour. We can be aware of their presence, understand their essential functioning, and still misread or fail to sense critical information about how others around us are behaving and interacting. Trying to get a handle on this, in my view, is one of the reasons for the rise in popularity of “emotional intelligence.”

The concept of emotional intelligence has been around for some time, but has been popularized in recent years by Daniel Goleman. It in turn builds on and collects together theories of personality, presence and personal mastery, offering a framework to manage social interactions through an awareness and ability to self-regulate personal attitudes and social interactions.

While emotional intelligence is a valuable and useful construct, in terms of practical guidance its no more helpful than my article on managing project disasters. What I mean by that is it offers frameworks, ideas and perspectives. It makes connections and builds understanding. But there is no single recipe of how to be emotional intelligent. There is no script for emotionally intelligent communication. There is no hard and fast, “If they do this, then respond this way.”

That idea is solidly built into the title: it emphasizes the “intelligent” part of emotional intelligence. In effectively dealing with others, we need to exercise judgement. We need to consider context and environment. We need to be receptive to social cues, but also open to interpreting what they might mean. We need to be able to find ways to test reactions and responses, and assess the impact we are having as we communicate with others. And we need to be ready to course correct as necessary when it becomes evident that we’ve misread or not taken wholly on board where someone else is coming from.

There are strategies to do this, of course, but they’re strategies. And as such, they work better in some situations than others. One of the ways I communicate, particularly in the early stages of tackling a contentious or difficult problem, is to focus more on asking questions than making assertions. Partly that’s my nature; I’m innately curious, and I want to know what others are thinking. Rather than guessing, I ask. I’m also ridiculously comfortable with asking what on the surface might seem like stupid or obvious questions.

There’s an interesting psychology to asking questions, especially ones that go back to foundational understanding and first principles. Doing so let’s you build back up to a more nuanced understanding, making sure that everyone’s on the same page. And that’s a delightful rationalization of the practice, but it’s not necessarily why I do it. At least, it’s not the only reason. My willingness to ask questions that might to some appear self evident is that I have learned that basic questions often lead to interesting insights, and that even experts can miss the obvious.

There’s a different psychology to not asking questions. And it’s one that we ignore at our peril. The essence of it is that people don’t want to appear stupid, and in fact have a deep and abiding desire to project expertise. They want to build credibility and demonstrate competence. The result is making assertions more than asking questions; they tell more than they inquire.

The interesting thing is that there is a vulnerability at work here that undermines what people are striving for. Nothing quite so quickly undercuts credibility as making a bold assertion that is actually wrong. An effort to project confidence and appear competent can very often have the opposite effect. That sends a different signal to people we are interacting with, as well as amplifying our own anxieties. The irony is that asking questions and being willing to acknowledge ignorance actually requires its own level of confidence. Asking good questions and caring about the answers is also a far more effective way of establishing empathy and building trust.

This article isn’t about all the different ways that we might establish effective relationships and successfully navigate the rocky shoals of organizational politics. The intent is simply to recognize that there are multiple ways. What will be effective is a product of situation, context and the players involved. We need to develop strategies that align with and reinforce our strengths. We need to be sensitive and responsive to the needs of others, and tailor how we connect to take those needs into consideration. We need to take stock and assess if what we are doing is getting us where we need to go. And we need to be nimble and flexible enough to revise our approach on the fly when our initial efforts don’t work out and we need to try something else instead.

The most effective strategy is the one that lands effectively in the moment. That’s going to depend very much on the moment we find ourselves in, and the other factors at play. I’ve had instances where I’ve been able to speak extremely uncomfortable truths bluntly and directly. There have also been days where that approach would have been a profoundly career limiting move. That fact that this can be true dealing with the same person, about the same situation, is the most powerful demonstration of the truth that the right approach genuinely depends.

We might want prescriptions, rules and recipes. The reality is that they are not only not relevant, they are downright dangerous. Success in navigating politics and personal relationships requires investing in the moment. Know where you are, what you are doing, who you are dealing with and the outcome that you need to arrive at. Draw on your expertise and insight, and relentlessly add to your insight with each new experience. Start with an attitude that emphasizes being helpful, and adapt while you figure out what genuine helpfulness looks like in the moment. Also acknowledge and be comfortable with the truths that in the next moment and the next circumstance, what constitutes helpful may well be very different.

Repeat as necessary. And it will always be necessary.

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