Office Politics:  A survivor’s guide for data scientists (and other techies)

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.   There are those who leverage office politics as a tool to advance their careers and increase their power, but I would like to simply discuss a few basic survival skills, so we can focus on doing the interesting analytics work.

Office politics are unavoidable

I tend to think of ‘office politics’ as fueled by two components:  Perception and Hidden Agendas.

Companies typically aim to be fair and to use objective criterion for measuring success.  As fallible humans, however, we are forced to ultimately rely on culture, intuition, perception 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 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).

We were not at all trained to succeed by learning to understand the perceptions and agendas of the people around us.   At work, we continue to focus on technical problems that require us to put our heads down and concentrate most of the day.  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.

Even when we do 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 read the same online forums.   We naturally mix less and when we do interact, it’s more difficult to pick up on the subtle clues when 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 whole point of office politics is that nothing is clear or out in the open.

Know that your technical skills and talents are no longer the only thing that matters.   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 describe how to completely protect yourself from getting slammed by office politics, but there are some basic principles that you can follow to give yourself a good head start.

Your colleagues should always perceive you as scoring high in three specific factors:

  1. The “sit next to” factor. You should be the type of person that people want to sit next to at lunch.  If people think you are a jerk, or someone who isn’t willing to socialize, they will make no effort to cover your back or warn you of impending dangers and may even go out of their way to sabotage your work.
  1. The “gets it” factor. Learn the basics of how things work in your company, the ‘company 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.
  1. The “business value” factor. If you tune in to what non-technical colleagues see as valuable, then you’ll start to be perceived as someone who can use their skills to add business value.   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.  If you keep pushing ideas for which no one sees business value, you become perceived as not adding value.

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.

Hidden Agendas

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 on to other people 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 blazing blindly ahead assuming that all of your colleagues are pushing towards the same goal, you will at least stand a chance of navigating the hidden obstacles rather than plowing straight into a brick wall at full speed.

In Conclusion

The impact of office politics can play a crucial role in enabling or preventing the success of your analytic initiatives within an organization.  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.


I discuss office politics and additional issues in greater depth during the trainings I provide in the area of  business skills for data scientists.