When you start a new job, you want to hit the ground running and build your credibility without stepping on those political landmines that can derail your plans. Here are four keys to building your credibility.
First, avoid the ingratiating informers. Informers want to increase their power and influence in exchange for telling you who they think the “problem people” are in the organization. You can recognize the informers because they will primarily focus on “what’s wrong and whose fault it is.” If they tell you things they would not say directly to the people they are talking about, this is a good indicator that they are informers. Informers undermine your credibility because as soon as your colleagues see you act on information from an informer, they immediately discount your leadership potential based on your poor judgment about who is a reliable source of information. Most people will know who the informers are, despite their attempts at secrecy.
Second, cultivate the cultural informants. In contrast to informers, informants want to give you information about the organizational culture to help you understand how things currently get done and why. The best informants will give you a framework for accurately interpreting the dynamics you observe. They don’t justify the status quo, they explain it. They are “honest brokers” interested in the success of the enterprise, not in increasing their own power, budgets, and control. Using good informants immediately increases your credibility because your colleagues can see that you are going to the trouble of understanding why things are the way they are, before trying to change or fix them. Informants will tell you directly where the political landmines are and how to avoid stepping on them when you make changes.
Third, map the informal networks. You need to create your own heavily annotated version of the organization chart. View the organization as an anthropological kinship system rather than a simple set of reporting relationships. Each person is actually an entry point to a network of relationships. When you interact with an individual, you need to know what network you are actually communicating with so you can (a) evaluate what you are hearing and (b) modulate your message to reach the network behind the individual. Even in a one-on-one meeting, you are never talking to just one person.
Here are some sample questions your cultural informants will help you answer:
- Who has been mentored, sponsored, and promoted by whom?
- Who relies on whom for technical or management advice?
- What are the existing coalitions and what affinities are they based on?
- Who is married to whom or was previously married to whom?
- Who frequently coordinates social gatherings in the office?
- Who shares outside affiliations like graduating from the same university, having kids at the same school, playing on the same sports team, carpooling together everyday, etc.
Once you get started you will see many relationships and networks. These relationships heavily influence information flows. Learn to use them to help you communicate.
Fourth, beware of the “obvious problem.” If you see what looks like a gaping hole in the organization, an obvious problem that has just been waiting for you to arrive with decisive judgment and solve it, beware! It’s a trap and it is surrounded by landmines. Even though you were smart enough to get the job, odds are you are not the first smart person to see this “obvious gaping hole” and see neon lights flashing “quick win.” The reason that this attractive and “obvious” problem is unsolved is that someone else stepped on a lot of political landmines before you got there. You should seek out your best informant and ask about the history of why the “obvious” problem has not yet been solved. Then decide where it fits in your priorities based on risks and potential positive impact.
Credibility is easier to build at the outset and harder to fix once it is lost, so it is worth focusing on it first.
Note: I recognize that the distinction between the words informer and informant has all but disappeared, courtesy of TV police dramas. I am using informant here in the anthropological sense.