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Q: I’m a tech lead and I feel like my voice is often not heard, and my team members are often ‘rolled over’ in decisions by more influential teams. I want to get better at internal politics, but without being labelled as ‘political.’ How can I navigate this minefield of internal politics?

“Politics” has a bad reputation among most software engineers. If an individual contributor (IC) or a manager is described as “political,” it almost always has a highly negative implication. It usually means that person makes few to no technical contributions, but works through others to get what they want, sometimes manipulating them for personal, not team, ends.

What about when a software engineer is referred to as “influential” by their peers? This usually refers to how they are seen to not only have strong technical skills, but to excel at gathering support for various initiatives; maybe their own, or those from their team or organization. 

Politics in some form is unavoidable and happens wherever there are groups of people and decisions which need to be made. ‘Man is a political animal,’ is one of the philosopher Aristotle’s most famous maxims. This is as true in 21st century tech as it was in Ancient Greece – with the caveat that today it applies not only to men. 

For women and underrepresented groups in tech, learning how to influence people early on, is even more important. As Rina Arstain, tech lead manager at Google, shares:

“As a rule of thumb, women have to learn how to influence people earlier on in their career if they want to get anywhere. This is because we cannot rely on getting credit for our ideas or being perceived as experts – even if we are. We cannot expect to be the loudest or most forceful person. Not that being loud is a good thing, but it can be effective for men. Being perceived as self-interested in any way is a death blow for us; we always have to look like we’re taking care of others. Learning how to navigate organizational politics is a survival skill for women in tech.”

“Internal politics” and “influence” within a company are connected, even though we don’t like to refer to influence as “political.” Influence is the “good type” of internal politics that I’d argue software engineers should learn about, if you want to support your team and eventually progress your career. 

This article is Part 1 in a two-part series covering internal politics as an IC or manager. In this article we cover:

What is internal politics?

  1. What is internal politics?

  2. The “bad” type of politics.

  3. The importance of influencing others.

How to get better at The Game.

  1. How to influence people in your organization.

  2. Expanding your network.

In Part 2, we’ll cover typical political situations as an individual contributor and manager, and how to avoid the “political” label.

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