Dealing With Power Dynamics and Work Politics as an Engineering Manager

· 5 min read
Dealing With Power Dynamics and Work Politics as an Engineering Manager

There’s this rush of excitement when you land that engineering manager promotion. After dedicating night after night towards this goal, your hard work finally pays dividends. But as the glory fades, the crushing reality sets in — it’s all on your shoulders now. The crippling weight of self-doubt rears sets in. Are you truly ready to lead? What if you fail?

Those nagging thoughts invade your mind as you join the call with executives on day one. This is your big chance to prove yourself capable and erase all doubts. Of course, that’s easier said than done. As the execs rapid-fire challenging questions your way, you find yourself paralyzed. Your palms start sweating as your rationale gives way to rising panic. You stutter half-baked responses until frustration takes over. Not the first impression you hoped for.

You reassure yourself it’s just beginner’s nerves. But the self-assurance fades fast. Week after week, your team keeps disregarding all guidance. Your attempts to connect fall flat. And the executives continue to ask uncomfortable questions again and again. Nothing seems to stick, no matter the preparation or passion behind your ideas. The strain takes an exhaustive toll.

The situation peaks when word reaches you of a major feature handed to your team without you knowing. After months of growing anxiety, this unexpected move finally boils over. Before you know it, you’re writing a long email to everyone involved, emotions spewing unchecked. You unleash all of the frustrations and hit send. Should you have been so impulsive? As close that GMail tab, the bleak reality sets in. Is your dream job now a nightmare? Have you just sabotaged everything? Maybe you just weren’t cut out to lead after all.

Ever felt so overwhelmed and self-doubting? I certainly did. The good news is that situations like the one I pictured above can be avoided if you learn to navigate the dynamics in the teams that report to you and the ones you report to. This is a new skill that you have to develop.

Connecting with People

Building strong working relationships is challenging, but it’s critical if you want to thrive in the work environment. You can skip this more or less when you’re an individual contributor but not when you’re a manager. Little did I know when I started how vital navigating politics would become.

In the beginning, I avoided one-on-ones. I mistakenly thought building rapport was too corporate. But looking back, it was the personal check-ins that mattered most. So start small. Make a calendar invite to meet each teammate or peer. Use it as quality time to get to know what makes them tick. Ask about their passions and pains, hopes and fears. You may be surprised what surfaces.

And don’t just do this once. Consistency is key when building trust. Check in often. And talk not just about deadlines and deliverables but about their lives. It will be awkward initially, but the more you know about each other, the easier it gets.

Don’t forget the power of recognition, either. When I first became manager, I rarely publicly spotlighted my team’s contributions. But people crave appreciation for their hard work. Look for every opportunity, big and small, to congratulate their wins. The way their faces light up is priceless.

Remember, this is a two-way street. Keep the door wide open for open dialogue. Ask for unfiltered opinions often. Make it safe for people to disagree and push back. That mutual understanding will anchor you during stormy seas.

The relationship-centric focus will transform how you navigate work politics. With stronger connections, you can achieve the impossible. The payoff in camaraderie and cooperation is extremely valuable.

Figuring Out The Chain of Command

As a manager, you know firsthand how tough balancing priorities can be when you suddenly have bosses to please and a team to guide. Being pulled in multiple directions is the bread and butter of the job. You can’t always keep everyone happy, but establishing effective communication up and down the org chart is essential if you want to thrive.

Initially, I put too much emphasis on the team and not enough on understanding the mindset of the people who make decisions. I didn’t even try to understand who are all the key stakeholders, focusing only on the tasks at hand. Even though I had good intentions for my direct reports, I’d often missed the mark on what some leadership team members wanted. I had to learn the hard way.

Start with figuring out who the people are making key decisions. Sure, one-on-ones with your manager are important, but likely not enough, as there are always a few more people whose opinions about you and what you do are important.

Carve out dedicated one-on-one time with your manager and other stakeholders, even indirect ones, focused solely on their goals. Dig into what success looks like for them and where you can align. Speaking their language in your plans and framing your wins by their metrics goes a long way. You’ll gain much more traction when you demonstrate how your work ladders up rather than presenting your own agenda.

And don’t neglect your team in the process. They need clarity from you on responsibilities, expectations, and priorities. Sometimes, you need to break things down step-by-step, almost painfully detailed at times, to make sure everything is clear.

It’s a balancing act, but you’ll get the hang of managing up and down over time. And when both your bosses and team are thriving, you’ll be amazed at how much smoother your days become.

Dealing With Power Dynamics

The whole workplace politics thing caught me completely off-guard initially. I assumed that respect and influence would follow with my new leadership title. That’s not exactly true. The unspoken hierarchies and rivalries often dictate everything behind the scenes, and it’s absolutely natural.

Every new project or team means carefully observing the dynamics before diving in headfirst. Learn to spot where the real decision-making power lives and start your influencing efforts there.

There’s nothing special you need to do. Focus on building good faith through professionalism. Make your colleagues know they can rely on you by always coming prepared, following through on deliverables, and being respectful and understanding even when disagreements surface. Your responsiveness builds trust, and soon, people seek your balanced take when office drama inevitably emerges.

You’ll still encounter colleagues’ self-interests colliding at times. It’s tempting to react emotionally when confronted aggressively — I’ve made that mistake before. But you should know how to respond firmly but calmly with facts alone. And if things escalate, suggest reconnecting later one-on-one where things cool down.

Steering company politics and a complex team ain’t easy. The dynamics that powerbrokers manipulate behind the scenes can leave your head spinning. But over time, you’ll charter a course.

The superpower that will help you is relationships. Schedule one-on-ones, ask meaningful questions, and actively listen to understand motivations and make connections. Spotlight your team’s accomplishments publicly and praise their grit during crunch times. And don’t just bark orders — encourage two-way dialogue to gather regular feedback.

You always serve two masters: your bosses and your reports. Clarify expectations clearly for your team while also teasing out the unspoken priorities leadership cares about most. Consistently tie your wins back to advancing those top objectives. Over-communicate to cover both bases.

And yeah, you’ll still need to deal with office politics, even with strong ties. Smartly read situations before inserting your voice. Lean on trusted allies to reality-check you during uncertain times. Stay balanced in conflict by admitting differing views before restating your well-weighted perspective.

With some practical techniques and resilience, you’ll be surprised how adept you’ll become at steering any storm. And before long, others will start following your course towards calmer waters.

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