Don’t Neglect the Politics of Analytics

Analysts can be naive about office politics, so here is a simple framework to bear in mind when interacting with stakeholders.

To complement recent advice from our guest bloggers, let’s consider the political dimension of applying analytics in business. Annette and Peter have shared useful tips on applying analytics for both customer experience and marketing. However, unlike in the classroom, advancing such use of analytics in business always involves politics. Over the years, as well as protecting technical stars from performance management systems, I have often had to mentor them on politics. Analysts can be idealistic and naive when it comes to the political dimension of office life. So, in this post, I suggest a simple framework to bear in mind when interacting with your stakeholders. I hope it helps you navigate the political dimension, or to coach your team to do so. A framework for the political dimension of stakeholders I have shared before on the importance of mapping your stakeholders and segmenting them, so you can adjust your style to suit them. Beyond this, there is a need to be aware of the political dimension and to act accordingly. Now, the precise details of political implications and game playing in each organization will vary. You will know better than I do what are long-term versus short-term priorities and how different stakeholders might be affected. What I want to share is a framework for identifying where political considerations matter and for which stakeholders. The 2×2 grid was developed by Simon Baddeley (Birmingham University) and Kim Turnball James (now at Cranfield). It is based on their research within the domain of local government, but their findings accord with my experience of working in large corporations. Their analysis of research findings led them to segment people into one of the following four quadrants. These are defined by the twin dimensions of reading (political awareness – ability to read what is really going on) and carrying (political actions – for good or ill). Using those two axes, they identify four clear segments into which your stakeholders may fall:
  1. Innocent stakeholders (like naive sheep)
  2. Inept stakeholders (like inept asses)
  3. Clever but untrustworthy stakeholders (like cunning foxes)
  4. Wise stakeholders (like the proverbial owls)
Let’s consider each quadrant in turn and their implications for managing stakeholders when deploying analytics. Quadrant 1: Naive Sheep The first point to make using this framework is to avoid being a sheep. Like lambs led to the slaughter, people in this quadrant are politically unaware, but innocent of any ulterior motive in their work. While potentially trustworthy, they can also all too easily be manipulated by others or become cynical and resentful of the organization. Sadly, I all too often discover that this is the quadrant occupied by analysts or data scientists. One of the reasons for that is actually principled. I have lost count of the times I have heard analysts or even their leaders describe themselves as not doing politics or sick of politics. As with an idealistic government-in-waiting, this is not a viable strategy. See also: Sentiment Analytics Can Drive Growth   Avoiding politics is impossible in any walk of life, but especially large organizations. As Aristotle said “man is by nature a political animal.“ However, it is possible to be political without selling your soul (as this useful article from Harvard Business Review puts it). The challenge for those who identify themselves in this quadrant is to wake up and smell the coffee. Recognize all the evidence that decisions (even important ones) are made for irrationalemotional and social reasons. Listen and watch more. Become more astute at understanding others' goals, concerns and where they might feel threatened. Build trust and collaborate where there is mutual benefit. When working with stakeholders in this quadrant, it can be helpful to propose more collaboration or socializing of their ideas before acting alone. Reassure them by sharing their ideas, but also ensuring they get the credit, even when you have done the networking. You may well become a trusted adviser for getting things done. Quadrant 2: Inept Asses Please note I am speaking about donkeys, not derrieres! These are people who lack political awareness, every bit as much as sheep, but do not have benign motives. Instead, they seek to play political games or manipulate situations to their advantage, while being embarrassingly obvious. They are the David Brent of real world offices. Believing themselves to be players they just make fools of themselves and usually undermine the reputation of their teams. Now we can all make mistakes in life. Errors of judgment. But, if you honestly self-identify in this segment, then the good news is that you have woken up to it. Apologies may be in order, but the most important thing to change will be your options. Stop trying to get one over on people. Start keeping your word and sharing to help others. When working with stakeholders in this quadrant, two things are worth considering. First, for any recommendations, lead with what is in it for them. Emphasize how they could benefit or advance their careers if they get on board. At the same time, be careful. You need to ensure you do not tarnish your reputation by being too closely aligned with their manipulation. You should also ensure it is not easy for them to pass off your work as their own. Quadrant 3: Cunning Foxes Here we reach the true Machiavellian manipulators within your business. At the worst, this is where you will find sociopaths and the few who actually do come to work to hurt others. Less extreme versions include those who have risen to a level of power or control and enjoy playing the system. Although such operators can appear glamorized in TV dramas, they can also leave a trail of destruction in their wake. I have personally witnessed a CFO who clearly took pleasure in humiliating and thwarting the efforts of certain middle managers. In these days of greater awareness around mental health at work and the alarming level of suicide among men under 50, we should be very concerned with such behavior. I have painted a picture of the stereotypical macho boss. But such character traits can also be found in women leaders and in those who do not appear senior. Anyone who has worked in large businesses will know that individuals can also exert control from positions of expertise or influence that are not obvious from org charts. It would surprise me if many of the readers of this blog self-identified as being in this segment. However, I have seen embittered cynicism manifest in some of these tendencies. If you find yourself thinking how you can get your revenge on others at work through the skills you have or ability to sabotage their work – stop. Don’t just think about the consequences if they found out, take time to reflect on the kind of person you want to become. Unfortunately, it is not rare to discover some of these characters at senior levels in large corporations. Being effective political operators, they are also often ruthlessly ambitious. If you identify some of the stakeholders you need to work with as being in this quadrant, then proceed with caution. A few tips may help you. Where possible, brief them before public meetings so they are not caught unawares (you do not want to corner them). At times, it may also make more sense to approach them in a more public setting, after you have secured the support of others you can trust. You should also consider what benefits for them you can highlight and whether it would work best to share those directly or in public. A personal pitch that you know fits with their plans or creates an opportunity may help complement a more public recommendation "in the interest of customers." Quadrant 4: Wise Owls As with all effective 2×2 matrices, this top right corner is where you want to be, having developed the ability to see the different political agendas and plans at work in your business and still being in touch with your soul and secure enough to act in the best interests of others. Those characteristics often distinguish those who are thinking more long-term. Age does not necessarily make one wise, but it might be worth considering if some of those older leaders in your business have wisdom to share. You can spot an owl by reputation. These are the leaders who are known as those who get things done, and people really want to work with them. They may not appear to be shining brightly at present, but you will find their advice being sought by people at all levels. If you have managed to develop both a strong ability to read the office politics and flexible tactics to get the right things done – please consider developing your team. Too few of today’s technically expert managers (across data, analytics, data science and research) possess such skills. Effective transformation of businesses to be data-led and ethical may well rely on your mentoring a generation of leaders to develop such skills. See also: 3-Step Approach to Big Data Analytics   If you have the pleasure of working with leaders whom you identify as being in this quadrant, consider asking them to be your mentor. This may be even more valuable for you if they are in a completely different part of your business. One of the most effective ways to develop increased awareness of office politics and the good judgment of deciding when and how to act is with the help of a mentor. At the least, it would help to consult with such leaders before widely sharing potentially controversial analysis. They may well be able to advise how to influence others. Are you a Sheep, Ass, Fox or Owl? I hope you found those thoughts on the political dimension of office life useful. Which segment did you identify with? Has anything I’ve said changed your view of use of politics at work? Why not dig out your stakeholder map and seek to place each of your key players in one of the above quadrants? At the least, I hope this post has prompted you to think about your ability to read political behavior and your motivations in any covert tactics of your own. A greater ability to operate wisely and ethically within the reality of political workplaces could really advance the influence and benefits of much analytics or insight.

Paul Laughlin

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Paul Laughlin

Paul Laughlin is the founder of Laughlin Consultancy, which helps companies generate sustainable value from their customer insight. This includes growing their bottom line, improving customer retention and demonstrating to regulators that they treat customers fairly.


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