Politics or influence?

puppetThe ability to influence people is a good skill for a project manager.  Isn’t it?

While working with some mid-level managers on communication skills, a recent Fortune article about how the new Ford CEO has been changing the culture there has generated some interesting discussions (see article).

Sharp elbows, fierce loyalties, and frequent turf battles were hallmarks of Ford’s management culture: The tough guys won.
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He drives performance the way he did at Boeing, with the Business Plan Review, a meeting with his direct reports, held early every Thursday… There are no pre-meetings or briefing books.

Great.  We had just been discussing “lining up your ducks” — where one gathers support and influences potential supporters before a decision meeting.  And here’s an article with an executive outlawing that very technique.  What’s going on?

Usually, when I hear someone use the term “it’s political,” it is being used pejoratively.  The speaker is usually describing a situation where decisions are being made: A)  with which the speaker does not agree; and B) that can only be explained by non-rational reasons (e.g. playing favorites, coercion, and a big #$*%^ mystery).

On the other hand, “influencing” seems to have a much better reputation.  Isn’t it our job as PMs to influence people on the project?  To find ways to get our stakeholders onboard?  I would say, “absolutely!”  I would go further and say that as PMs, we communicate (and communicate and communicate) expressly in order to influence getting to a mutually beneficial outcome.

On the other hand (my mind seems to need a lot of hands these days), could it be that one person’s influencing can be another’s political manipulation?

Hmmm…. well, it is true that some of the same techniques can be employed.

Some things do  seem to be key differences:

A) Open to scrutiny — Political manipulation seems to occur most often behind a veil;  there is an opaqueness to processes.

B) Source of power — Influencing more often relies upon the “power” of facts/data  (this is not to say that “facts” are ever purely objective), as opposed to political power of reward/punishment.

C) Who benefits — Political motivation seems to be focused more on benefitting a small sub-group rather than a wide and inclusive  view.

As  PMs we are living and breathing influencers.  But, do we ever cross over into political manipulation?  Probably, and we should think about the implications — is it ever justified?

However, I guess I’m more worried about if, in our zeal to influence, we can be perceived as political players in the perjorative sense.  What if some people see our numerous (and often unscheduled) meetings and conversations as furtive and secretive?    What if they don’t understand the rational basis of our position?  What if some people see our success as evidence of politics and don’t see how the stakeholders as a whole benefit?

As our discussions went on, it became pretty evident that there is a spectrum between clearly benign influencing and clearly evil political manipulation — and there’s the issue of perception.

Ford’s CEO is trying to shine a bright light into the backrooms.  And maybe that’s one test on whether we’ve crossed over to the dark side:  can our influencing actions withstand  scrutiny?  Would our parents be proud?

Alan Tsuda

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2 thoughts on “Politics or influence?”

  1. What an excellent article! I truly enjoyed reading this, and threw my head back in hearty laughter several times even though I was in the middle of a crowded and relatively quiet open office. I particularly relate to the part about being perceived to be political when in fact we may think we are well-intentioned influencers. Unfortunately we cannot control other people’s perception of us.

    Those in positions of power or “success” are rarely aware of the privilege they enjoy, and those who envy them frequently attribute their success to anything but the hard work and intense discipline that it takes to achieve. One friend said the hierarchy in a company (or a project?) is like a bunch of monkeys in a tree. When you’re at the top and look down you just see a bunch of smiling faces, but when you are NOT at the top and you look up . . . well, you just see a bunch of assholes (a word we can say in business now that Dr. Robert Sutton wrote his “The No Asshole Rule” book a while back).

    The Bible says “Refrain from all appearance if evil.” but I’d rather focus on getting the job done than on worrying what people may read into my behaviors. We could all benefit from using the “Assumption of Positive Intent” (API) more frequently, or maybe spending more time fighting competitors than internal squabbles about ego, status and power. Of course we don’t need to unnecessarily antagonize people, but in the end they will think what they want about us, which is usually a projection of their own issues more than it is about us.

    Go forth and get stuff done! – Kimberly

  2. Alan, this was a thought-provoking article, much needed on a dull Thursday morning. The key to quieting the influence vs. politics debate, I think, is to be as transparent and as frequent as possible in your communications with all stakeholders. Cast the widest net possible in communicating and make sure you include all the facts, opinions, ideas, etc. At least you won’t be accused of hiding anything. This also lets people know how hard you are working on that vital project and that you only have their best interests at heart. An interesting thing I read on someone’s blog (Presentation Zen?) a while back said that every communication you make should be used to influence someone. For example, even if you think you are giving an informative status report on a project, what you really should be doing is influencing your stakeholders to continue their support of your project.

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