Why Designers Hate Politics (And What To Do About It)

People who design things for a living depend on optimism. To do their job well, whether it’s designing websites or automobiles, they must believe they have the talent to make things that are better than what currently exists in the world. The problem is that this optimism, when combined with immaturity, creates a shallow view of how organizations work. Designers claim, and often with good reason, that they understand human behavior better than others, but their distaste for what they call politics reveals they’re ignorant of one of the most natural behaviors people in groups have. Designers who hate, or don’t comprehend, politics betray their own ideas by not recognizing how politics defines the landscape they must work on.

A major part of the confusion is that the word politics is used in two very different ways:

  1. Politics (n): the things self-serving, manipulative people do.
  2. Politics (n): the process of making decisions that apply to members of a group.

When someone says “I hate working in Stan’s organization, he’s so political” they’re using the first definition, and they specifically mean the abuse of power to serve someone’s self-interest or the creation of a culture of fear and dysfunction. These are bad things, for sure, but often the word politics is used in a lazy way, by someone who simply doesn’t understand why their ideas get shot down, or why they’re not given the power they think they deserve. Rather than examining the culture they’re in (who is thriving here? what are they doing that I am not? Do I need new skills or a new job?), they blame the very concept of politics.

The big lesson many designers are in denial of is that human nature is political (2nd definition above). The fields of sociology, anthropology and psychology are largely about the complex challenges of people trying to get along with each other (and themselves). Put simply, when you organize people to do something, whether it’s throwing a party or starting a company, each individual has their own opinions on the right way to do it. And they have preferences for who they like to work with and what tasks they like to work on. This means no matter how talented a project leader is some people will not get everything they want. This motivates people to influence those with power or to try and take it for themselves (and if raises, promotions and prestige are at stake the tendency for people to forget their ideals increases). There are of course many ways to express ambition, some much healthier and more transparent than others, but politics are everywhere people are.

  “Every management act is a political act… in some way [it] redistributes or reinforces power.” — Richard Farson

Blaming “politics”, in the abstract, is a convenient way to avoid taking responsibility for solving problems. The same is true for pointing fingers at “management,” “engineering,” or “marketing” and saying how stupid they are (See: The Fallacy of ‘They Don’t Get It’). Pointing fingers doesn’t make them any less stupid or ineffective, and deflects any personal responsibility for learning how to be more persuasive, collaborative or thoughtful in how you approach working with them (which may be part of the problem). And who knows, it’s possible that with a careful eye, it might just be that what you see as incompetence in others is just a smart person constrained by similarly difficult political factors as your own. Of course some workplaces are truly broken, but that mostly raises the goal of finding yourself a new place to work. When a designer, a natural optimist, is pessimistic about who they work for and with, it’s time to move on.

Designers love to talk about their mastery of problem-solving skills, but politics is just another kind of problem-solving: people problems. If you approach organizational problems with the same optimism, discipline and creativity that you approach a design or engineering problem, you can find alternatives to explore and use them to make better decisions. And this is the grand irony of designers complaining about politics: designers should be great at the combination of problem-solving and understanding people, yet so often they can’t escape their frustration that these problems even exist. It’s immature to expect an entire organization, or species, to suddenly work differently simply because you’ve arrived, yet this is often what designers do. The twisted joke is that often everyone wants more power and thinks they are most deserving of it, yet (designers) can’t see that the people who frustrate them the most are acting on similar feelings to their own.

The greatest factor in your political experience of an organization is your boss. A good manager will buffer you from organizational drama and set you up to succeed, while a bad one will amplify the worst problems an organization has. For designers, this means the heaviest political burdens land on the most senior designer in their organization. It’s their job to pave the way for all the people who work for them, establishing relationships with other powerful people in the organization. But sadly design as a profession suffers from the Peter Principle. The problem of overpromotion is universal in the working world, but design is a specialized enough field that often the people who become design directors, or executives, are far better at designing than directing, leading or managing. In the best cases they know their primary job is to be an ambassador of design to the CEO and other executives, to form partnerships, align goals and gain influence that can be transferred down into their own organization. But even as an individual designer without much support from above, there are still many things you can do.

The way forward is that politics, even in the healthiest organization, is based on your reputation. The same organization will feel very different if you have a great reputation for getting good work done vs. having a terrible one (or no reputation at all). This means earning trust and cultivating respect from your peers and superiors is the path. This is far more productive than allowing your audible frustrations at “politics” in meetings be the primary way people know you. And much like designers study users, they can also study their coworkers and superiors. By asking simple questions, much can be revealed that makes healthier politics possible:

  • What does my boss value? What problems is she trying to solve? How can my talents help solve them?
  • What problems is her boss trying to solve? How aligned are they? (Is the real problem between my boss and my skip-level manager?)
  • Who in the organization frustrates them the most? Why? (Powerful people have their own politics to deal with too)
  • Who among my peers is thriving here? Why? (If no one is thriving, also ask why)
  • What can I learn from them?
  • Who frustrates me the most? Are my goals aligned with theirs? Why not? Who sets their goals? Do they have a good relationship with who sets mine? Who is the boss of all of them and why haven’t they fixed this problem yet?
  • Is my work simply low priority and what I see as “politics” is really just a prioritization decision?
  • Who has more influence than I do, that I trust, who can lend me their ear for advice?
  • What realistic expectations do they think I should have for the culture here?
  • What political skills are my weakest? How can I become a better facilitator? negotiator? persuader?
  • Who has a good reputation that I can partner with to pitch an idea and use their reputation to help grow mine?
  • Is there a manager here that I’d be better suited working for?
  • Or is it just time for me to find a new place to work?

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4 Responses to “Why Designers Hate Politics (And What To Do About It)”

  1. Vinish Garg

    Super interesting post on design processes challenges in product teams. Unsurprisingly, I see it more in medium sized or mature organizations and less in startups. Because for startups, the goals are more important (for the stakes), and people realize that thoughts and processes when aligned towards the business goals and CX goals are an absolute must – there is no choice. In mature organizations, this sense of urgency (and stakes and possibly careers too) is different or sometimes it is totally missing.

    As a content strategist (turned strategic story designer), I always think that it is relatively easier to deal with ‘design politics’ when compared with ‘content politics’. This is there are clearer and objective ways to ‘evaluate’ a design approach (A/B testing, research based campaigns) and so the challenge is only to agree on something. It is comparatively complex to ‘evaluate’ a content approach because (a) content lacks face and glamor, internally (b) and so content is an afterthought.

    And I often say it for the boss – we are not designing experiences for the boss, NOR for our organization (or clients if we are a services agency) – we are designing it for the actual paying customers who will use the product. So, we need to eliminate all friction and roadblocks in that goal.

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      I think you’re right – startups attract people who expect more uncertainty and for the politics (and roles, and power structure) to be fluid and in motion. It’s in more established organizations, and the people attracted to them, that the tensions this essay centers on exist – where you enter a world where you’re new to the power structure and not only have to sort out how it works but (at least feel as if) you have to work uphill to get anywhere.

      Thanks for the comment. Some of what you wrote I need to think about more before I can comment on it.

      Reply
  2. Murali

    Scott,

    Let’s take a survey of all people who hold jobs in corporations with 2 questions.
    A) Do you hate organizational politics
    B) Do you like organizational politics

    Everybody I know say they aren’t political and they are sincere about their views.

    We can’t single out design thinkers as purists. I have been witness to design thinking gurus who were toxic to a company

    Murali

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      The question I’d ask: is there anything special about how designers relate to politics of their organizations? If the answer is no, then I didn’t need to write this essay! (And I wish I knew that beforehand :).

      If the answer is yes, then the question is: did I describe that specialness? If yes, that’s nice. If no, I’m open to thoughts on what I missed.

      Reply

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