CIOs frequently find themselves on the receiving end of political attacks from stakeholders, who see them as easy targets when IT-related initiatives go wrong, even when it isn’t their fault. Many falsely blame IT for their own failures when it’s convenient for them, or when they simply misunderstand the complexities and realities of technology.
Unfortunately, many tech chiefs respond from the stance of a service provider and attempt to appease them, which can inadvertently encourage future attacks. Over time, a CIO’s inability to deal with persistent attacks can damage relationships with colleagues and their own position in the enterprise.
Diplomacy is said to be the art of handling a ‘porcupine’ without disturbing the quills. Various studies show that “porcupines” — and organisational politics — are prevalent in most organisations. Become a politically savvy leader and verbal diplomat, proficient at defending against verbal attacks and changing enterprise perceptions.
This means defending yourself appropriately and with skill, particularly against an aggressive opponent who may be more powerful than you. It’s the art of skilfully defending yourself and IT without appearing either defensive or aggressive.
Become a verbal diplomat
CIOs need to master the art of dealing with unwarranted verbal attacks to establish or maintain the reputation of the IT department as more than a service provider waiting to be blamed
Verbal attacks may take place privately, or may take the form of a public ambush in a meeting or via email where you have little or no warning of an attack. CIOs who lack tools to deal with ambush situations often respond emotionally and either shut down, lose control of their temper, or simply give in to appease and avoid further conflict and embarrassment. Although quite understandable, none of these options are beneficial.
Learn to identify the signs of inappropriate political attacks as they are happening and defuse rather than appease attackers. Start by identifying where a verbal attack begins – either a colleague attacks, or CIOs initiate a conversation they believe will be innocuous and suddenly find themselves under attack.
Then focus on the desired final outcomes. In particular, resolving the immediate attack and discussion constructively; winning others over; and optimising the long-term relationship between the participants. Any political attack should end with the accomplishment of these outcomes.
There are some techniques that can help you fend off attacks diplomatically and steer discussions in a more positive direction.
Always work to avoid verbal escalations. These occur when either you or your colleague (or both) become agitated beyond the point of rationality and usually result in significant collateral damage to all participants.
Sometimes, what we don’t say is as important as what we do say. A single misplaced word can inadvertently trigger a crisis and escalation. By avoiding a few key triggers, you can greatly reduce unintended escalations.
Whether the attack is deliberate or spontaneous, asking specific questions at the beginning of the conversation can help you buy time, gather critical information and decide what to do next. Then either engage in resolution or choose a better time and place.
It’s also important to actively calm the situation, so you and your colleague can be open to each other’s points of view. Accomplish this by managing your own agitation and helping reduce their agitation.
Ideally, CIOs want to end up in sync with colleagues on whatever the issue is and optimise the relationship. One of the most effective techniques is genuine empathy or acknowledgment. Agitated colleagues will become more agitated when their sentiment or emotion goes unacknowledged.
The opposite of telling people that they’re “wrong,” is telling them they’re “right” about something. This isn’t the same as taking blame; rather it’s validating some part of the attacker’s accusation, no matter how small. This disarms the attack and prevents further escalation.
Once you have de-escalated the situation, then get the discussion onto a more productive track. Redirection techniques help control the discussion in a constructive manner and steer toward a shared outcome.
After successfully redirecting colleagues away from attack mode and into a constructive line of discussion, align with one another and collaboratively find a solution.
Despite your best efforts, it may not be possible to de-escalate and synchronise in a completely positive way.
Attackers may have ulterior motives that are stronger than their desire to find a reasonable solution. In some cases, they may simply not like you or IT, or something in their past makes it difficult to resolve the issue constructively. You may have little choice but to resort to neutralising them.
Power is a legitimate tool of diplomacy. You must be willing to use significant power and take on the risks associated with doing so. Assess the value of sending a message versus the potential collateral damage of neutralising a colleague.
Never neutralise a colleague without the intention of and a plan for restoring them. Otherwise your efforts will appear vengeful or petty and will damage your relationship with them – and your reputation.
There’s a special bond that forms between two individuals who have fought and worked their way through it. Perhaps one has to care enough about the issue or the other person to engage in a fight.
Optimise both successful outcomes and their relationships by having short-set techniques always ready to deploy that fit your personality and leadership style. This helps develop your reputation as a strong leader with opinions and positions of your own and for resolving conflict in a productive manner. You’ll earn greater confidence from other executives, colleagues and their teams.
Most importantly, you’ll have the strength and ability to defend yourself, which will diminish and prevent future political attacks.
Cathleen Blanton is a VP analyst at Gartner. She specialises in helping government CIOs partner with executive counterparts on the issues that help their agencies achieve digital government outcomes. Cathleen is speaking at Gartner IT Symposium/Xpo 2019 on the Gold Coast, 28-31 October.
Tina Nunno is a distinguished VP analyst at Gartner, specialising in CIO-related leadership issues, including working with the board of directors, executive communications, change management and governance strategies
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