Everyone gets sunk by office politics at some point in their career, but data scientists are in some ways especially ill-prepared to navigate the unspoken rules and hidden agendas that together form a critical part of the corporate world. Although some people may actively fuel office politics to gain power, I'll assume that's not the case for most of us. I'd like instead to simply suggest a few basic survival skills, so we can focus as much as possible on completing our technical projects.
Office politics are unavoidable
I see ‘office politics’ as consisting of two components: Perceptions and Hidden Agendas.
Companies typically aim to be fair and to use objective criterion for measuring success. As fallible humans, however, we are often forced to ultimately rely on culture, intuition, perceptions and incomplete information. These perceptions, in turn, are dictated by our backgrounds and past experiences and are largely influenced by often unsubstantiated input from others around us.
The input from others, in turn, may come from their own set of perceptions, and it may also have its source in the second component of office politics: the hidden agenda. These hidden agendas may be fueled by any one of a number of factors, including ambition, revenge, or insecurity.
The result is a system where performance evaluations and decision processes assume an apparently random nature; a sort of ‘butterfly effect’.
Why data scientists are especially vulnerable
What makes office politics so difficult for us as data scientists or developers is that we are used to working with clearly defined standards of success. We succeeded at school when we were able to solve clearly defined problems. We were evaluated in a fair and precise manner by domain experts (our instructors). It didn’t matter how we dressed, if we showed up late for class, or if we were ever-so-slightly rude to our teachers (on occasion).
Our schooling didn't develop skills in perceiving the perceptions and agendas of the people around us. At work, our technical assignments require us to stay isolated and 'in the zone' for extended periods. Less focus on the people around us means less awareness of the subtle inter-personal signals that could clue us into the presence of office politics.
When we do finally leave our desks to interact with our non-technical colleagues, there is the ‘apple / orange’ effect. Our colleagues don’t get the funny slogans on our t-shirts or have accounts on stack overflow. We naturally mix less and when we do interact, it’s more difficult to pick up on the subtle clues that something may be wrong.
How to minimize the pain
The most important thing is to realize the need to stay alert. Stay alert to the perceptions of those around you. Stay alert when you sense resistance or hostility, because it may be just the tip of the iceberg, and the unseen part of the iceberg is likely to sink your ship before you realize it. The reason we call it politics is that nothing is clear or out in the open.
Know that your technical skills and talents are no longer the only things that matter. If you don’t have the support of the people around you, you will fail. Getting the support of your colleagues requires you to be aware of the perceptions that you generate and conscious that there are hidden agendas operating around you.
Perceptions: First Line of Defense
It’s not possible to completely protect yourself from office politics, but there are basic principles that can give you a head start.
Your colleagues should always perceive you as scoring high in three specific factors:
1. The “sit next to” factor: Be a person people want to sit next to at lunch. If colleagues perceive you as arrogant or anti-social, they will make no effort to cover your back or warn you of impending dangers. Some may even go out of their way to sabotage your work.
2. The “gets it” factor: Learn your company's basic culture. Are decisions made by consensus during meetings or in private conversations after the meetings? Does management welcome open debate or expect public agreement? Are there certain social events that are especially important to attend? Don’t be the guy who keeps making rookie mistakes at work.
3. The “business value” factor: Tune in to what non-technical colleagues see as valuable. Catch the ball when there is an emergency. Be flexible. Become perceived as someone who understands how to add value at the right time and in the right way. Don't push your own ideas too hard unless you're ready to start your own company.
Perceptions: Second Line of Defense
In addition to the three factors above, be aware that everything you do is making an impression on your colleagues. Coming to work late, leaving early, taking long breaks, or spending time on social media can all sabotage your career by creating a poor perception. This is particularly important for data scientists, because when your colleagues aren’t certain about your technical skills, they will revert to their shallow perceptions of you.
Unfortunately, you may also lose points at your company if you come across as too smart, too hard working, or too energetic. People will start to perceive you as a threat, and you’ll run afoul of one of the most common types of hidden agenda.
In addition to being aware of the perceptions that people are forming, be aware that there are hidden agendas that are operating all around you. For many people, the most important items on their agenda are to preserve or increase their own power (possibly by hiding their incompetence). These people will not support you or your work if they perceive you as a threat, and some people feel threatened whenever someone else is successful. Do yourself a favor and stay humble. Pass credit to colleagues whenever possible. Always publicly acknowledge the accomplishments of your colleagues.
It’s nearly impossible to understand the range of hidden agendas operating around you, but if you keep your eyes and ears open rather than assuming that all your colleagues are pushing towards the same goal, you will at least stand a chance of navigating the hidden obstacles rather than plowing full speed into a brick wall.
The impact of office politics can play a crucial role in enabling or preventing the success of your technical projects. You’ll never completely understand the agendas and perceptions of everyone around you, but training yourself to be observant and following certain best practices can help minimize the chance of getting sunk by that iceberg.
How has your experience been in this area? I’d like to hear your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below.