I must be one of perhaps five people in Australia who hasn't watched Survivor, the TV series about 16 contestants (castaways) dropped on a remote island to compete for $US1 million. It isn't for lack of time, although finding more productive things to do is never much of a problem, and I'm not one of those pretentious nudniks who are proud to announce to anyone who'll listen that they don't watch television. I'm a pretentious nudnik for other reasons.
I like TV. I watch AFL football, Beauty and the Beast and The X-Files with the concentration of a brain surgeon, and yet they couldn't make me watch Survivor if the episode featured Larry Ellison being served as that evening's entrée. A description of the show explains why:
For 39 days, 16 castaways are marooned on a tropical island in the South China Sea, where they're forced to band together to survive using their collective wits. The survivors form their own cooperative island society by building shelters, gathering and catching food, and participating in contests for rewards. Those who succeed in the day-to-day challenges are rewarded with things to make life more bearable, and those who fail must do without. Periodically, the deal making, backbiting and political manoeuvring are brought to a halt while the castaways take part in a secret ballot to throw one of their tribe off the island. Week by week, one by one, the tribe shrinks until, at the end of the final episode, the sneakiest, scrappiest, backstabbingest survivor remains to claim the bounty.
Gives you the shivers, doesn't it? This is what the networks call a "reality" show. Now why would we need a TV reality show when this kind of realism is happening in our offices 14 hours a day and without, I might add, the acid trip of watching William Shatner sing (if it can be called that) about Priceline.com?
For God's Sake, Scotty, Beam Him Up!
Leave it to the television networks to package our worst workplace nightmares and call it entertainment. It's office politics with a dash of sand in your underwear. Some research I've seen recently supports my long-held suspicion that most executives who fail in their jobs do so because of political problems, not skill deficiencies. A lot of intelligent, capable, well-meaning men and women have seen their careers stall (or they simply ran out of patience) because they hadn't learned to cope with office politics or couldn't comprehend the motivations of the miscreants around, below and above them (known coincidentally as survivors), whose all-consuming ambition is a 5 per cent raise and a better company car. It's not the mechanical aspects of their jobs that sink most CIOs; instead, they simply can't come to grips with the interpersonal arm wrestling, horse-trading and all-too-petty power plays that exist in the vast majority of organisations with more than two employees. In the pursuit of what they believed to be ethical leadership, most simply can't understand or cope with the unspoken values of an organisation that sanctions this destructive behaviour.
Communicating indirectly, hiding vulnerabilities, currying favour and doling out the truth with an eyedropper is a game that many fast-tracking junior executives learn pretty early on in their careers. With a little practice, you'll find they're surprisingly easy to pick out from the herd. Their number one priority is to be liked rather than speak the truth. Their desire to please will lead them to laugh at your lamest jokes. They adopt the mannerisms of a concierge when interacting with superiors and then later worry at length about whether they said the right things. And they never, ever publicly disagree with the majority point of view.
Dick (not his real name, of course), a direct report in one of my bygone departments, was a so-so director of applications development and a highly skilled weasel. Dick believed that before you criticise someone, you should first walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you do criticise them, you'll be a mile away, and you'll have their shoes. I made a lot of mistakes managing Dick. My biggest mistake happened the first week I joined the company. Two or three times during my orientation meetings, Dick was characterised in casual conversations as a survivor. If I had been using my head, I would have taken this euphemism for the warning it was meant to be and fired him under the banner of "house cleaning". I didn't, though, and within a few months I was stuck with him, unable to justify his removal on grounds that would satisfy HR and barely able to control the damage he did to reputations and morale.
Dick's MO was to criticise his peer directors in the IS department to senior management in other departments. The idea was to spread fear and doubt, not only about the quality of the applications the other IT directors were providing, but also about their veracity during project updates and progress reports.
This situation, as obvious as a fortune cookie that reads "Soon you will be finished with dinner", took me forever to figure out for a couple of reasons. First, those receiving the information were all too willing to accept the negative news at face value (it being about IT, after all) and were not inclined to share with me what they were hearing. Second, I could not imagine why anyone would be motivated to do such a thing. I have always seen this type of behaviour as an indication of insanely high levels of insecurity. I say insane because in these times of high demand and low supply, even a no-talent like Dick is among the most permanently employable people on the face of the earth. Had I given Dick what he deserved, it would have taken him about 20 minutes to find another job at twice the salary.
Sadly, every department has a Dick. For that reason, allow me to share with those less seasoned among us a few of the rules for surviving office politics.
Rule Number 1:
The engine driving office politics is gossip, a highly technical and complex form of communication in which messages are carefully prioritised for maximum effect. A lie will make it halfway around the company while the truth is still in rush-hour traffic. Undercommunication on your part can be deadly, especially when things aren't going all that well. You may have to spend millions to effectively communicate your systems strategy to your stakeholders throughout the world, but just get your mouse caught in the shredder and it's around the company before you can say "wireless". I know it's annoying, but communication really is the single most essential business lubricant.
Rule Number 2:
Listen Very Carefully
There's information not only in what is being written and said, but in how it's being said and the medium used to deliver the message. In politically charged environments, you also have to listen intently for what is being left unsaid. Many of those around you will extol the virtues of honest, open communication, but the fact is, most people are deathly afraid of plain talk. Incomprehensible levels of insecurity among even our most talented people have just about everyone too tongue-tied to speak their minds. Petrified by the prospect of being bludgeoned by a sneer or stabbed to death by a frown on the right person's brow, they routinely skirt the real issues. This sham is brought about by the fear of being accountable on a strictly personal basis. Within most IT organisations, bad news rarely flows uphill until it's too late, and for CIOs this can be a career-shortening problem.
Rule Number 3:
Don't Put Up With It
Your best people are counting on you to clear away as many obstacles as possible to help them get their jobs done. The counterproductive, time-consuming, spirit-crushing sport called office politics is one of the things you are primarily responsible for keeping under control. If your peers are playing politics, then call them on it - in private if you can and in public if you have to. If you catch your subordinates in the act, fire them on the spot, and HR be damned. If your boss is playing politics, don't get sucked in. If you can't stay out of the way, better to say the hell with it and just get off the island.
Anonymous has been a CIO at household-name companies for over 12 years