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How tech leaders can better navigate organizational politics

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When you think about people entangled in organizational politics, terms that come to mind include manipulation, self-serving, turf battles, power plays, and hidden agendas. Not terribly uplifting. But Neal Sample, former CIO of Northwestern Mutual, sees it a different way. “I think of a different set of words like influence, diplomacy and collaboration,” he says. “In reality, politics aren’t good or bad. It’s just how things get done in organizations.”

So how should we be more cognizant about office politics versus organizational politics now that the pandemic has shifted the former to the latter? Managers approach it in different ways but for tech leaders, it can be particularly challenging, something Sample calls the physics of IT.

“I think politics is really about getting a positive outcome when there is scarcity,” he says. “That’s what you’re trying to work for. That clinical definition has the idea of advancing one of your ideas, which I think is okay, as long as it lines up with a positive outcome whether it’s for shareholders, customers, clients or patients. Not every idea can’t be implemented, and that’s when politics comes into play. You have different groups with different ideas of what positive outcomes look like, and then it’s navigating those potentially choppy waters especially as an IT professional.”

Sample, whose career also includes roles at Express Groups, American Express, eBay, and Yahoo!, knows that ethically building critical mass of support for an idea you believe in is a textbook description of those who are politically savvy. But equal empathy for dissenting positions goes a long way to achieve beneficial outcomes.

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Tech Whisperers podcast’s Dan Roberts recently spoke with Sample about the evolving nuances of organizational politics. Here are some edited excerpts of that conversation. Watch the full video below for more insights.

On leading equity: I think a lot of the old definitions of politics had to do with the physical space in the office, with relationships, tenure and a notion of favoritism: who had been around before, who had achieved before, who seemed to be in favor versus out of favor. And a lot of that goes away with online equity. But a virtual environment is complex for gathering a diversity of ideas. For example, we remember the first time we saw ourselves in little boxes outside the office in the early editions of Zoom, and there was a certain level of equity associated with it. We all had the same size real estate. On the other hand, people noticed an asymmetry in airtime. Unless you were very intentional about pulling people into a conversation, there was a chance that people who were otherwise shy or part of a marginalized group would be even more shy or more marginalized. It was actually easier to get lost in the conversation. People didn’t talk over each other or sidebar in a way that might have happened in a face-to-face meeting.

On the physics of IT: IT is a unique element of a business. In the notion of resource scarcity, we might want to get something done but then halfway through the year, even with an annual plan, a new idea comes up, or some M&A or a competitive threat emerges and we decide we need to change something. Inside of information technology, sometimes there are these tradeoffs—the physics of IT. You have one particular team that knows a system. They’ve been working on Problem A, and now they’re going to work on Problem B. Or you have a certain amount of capacity and throughput that’s sitting in a data center or in a legacy installation, and you can’t magically grow that by a factor of 10 because of your historical application services. In any way, IT has this notion of physics. There is a limit that happens sometimes with subject matter experts or resources. Other areas don’t have that conundrum. Sometimes you can solve the problem with money, but there are other elements of the workplace that aren’t constrained by the same set of resources, the same physics problems that IT have. Because of that intrinsic scarcity, IT is where the conflict often shows up.

On negotiation: As an IT professional, I’ve spent time learning from the world of business about how to be a good negotiator. One thing that was new to me years ago was the notion of a BATNA—your best alternative to a negotiated agreement. If you find yourself in negotiation, the first thing you have to figure out is what the best alternative is, which tells you what it’s like if you lose. It also tells you what your leverage is with a vendor, let’s say. You have to think about your pricing negotiation. Having that in mind, starting with seeing what it looks like to lose this negotiation, or not end up with the price you want, is incredibly powerful because then instead of talking about it like it’s an all or nothing, it’s really the difference between 100 and 80, but 80 at a lower price. You figure those things out. That is really powerful. What’s also interesting are contracts between IQ and EQ. I think folks used to be happy to be IQ-oriented professionals in technology. And a lot of time, we were thought of as sort of back-office cost control. But that switched to the notion that technology is the product or the experience, or powers the supply chain, is true just about everywhere now. The big difference, from a negotiating perspective, is because of the physics of IT and that tradeoffs happen in technology a lot, you have to be good with your EQ. Not even just dealing with a single partner but somebody who wants something from you. Sometimes, the battleground is two different business divisions or maybe two functions that both want something and suddenly, your job is to now be Switzerland.

On the good fight: We should all be fighting to win for the company, enterprise, organization. But politics is when we have different ideas, when there is scarcity and we can’t do everything. There has to be a tradeoff. If you fight to win, you’re going to set yourself up as an adversary. There’ll be an outcome that’s positive and negative—the classic win-lose. But if you fight to lose, the first thing you do is adopt the opposition idea, philosophy, product or approach—whatever you feel is competing with your proposal or idea. So then you adopt it as your own and spend time figuring out why the other side is right instead of doing research to back up your own position. For example, if you think going to Agile from Waterfall is the right thing to do, spend time trying to figure out why Agile doesn’t work. Then I guarantee two things will happen. You’ll either become more effective and persuasive with your own argumentation because you better understand the alternatives, or you might find yourself changing your mind. And from an office politics perspective, this is one of the best things that can happen for a long-term relationship, coming to a partner with humility. You demonstrate you have empathy and are a good partner because you are willing to compromise.

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Uyghur refugee vote by Canada MPs angers China

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OTTAWA –

The Chinese government says a motion MPs passed Wednesday to provide asylum to persecuted Uyghurs amounts to political manipulation by Canada.

MPs including Prime Mister Justin Trudeau unanimously called on Ottawa to design a program that would bring 10,000 people of Turkic origin, including Uyghurs, to Canada from countries other than China.

They passed a motion that acknowledges reports that Uyghurs outside China have been sent back to their country of birth, where they have faced arrest as part of Beijing’s crackdown on Muslim groups.

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Foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said in Beijing that people in the Xinjiang region live in peaceful harmony, contradicting widespread reports of forced labour and sexual violence.

An English translation by the ministry said Canada should “stop politically manipulating Xinjiang-related issues for ulterior motives,” and Ottawa is “spreading disinformation and misleading the public.”

The non-binding motion said the government should come up with the outline of a resettlement program by May 12 that would begin in 2024 and meet its target within two years.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 2, 2023.

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Republicans push to remove Ilhan Omar from foreign affairs panel

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Washington, DC – In one of his first moves since becoming speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy is leading an effort to block Congresswoman Ilhan Omar from serving on the chamber’s Foreign Affairs Committee over her past criticism of Israel.

On Wednesday, the Republican majority in the House advanced a resolution to remove Omar from the panel. Democrats opposed the move, accusing McCarthy of bigotry for targeting the politician – a former refugee of Somali descent who is one of only two Muslim women serving in the US Congress.

A few Republicans initially opposed McCarthy’s effort, casting doubt over his ability to pass the resolution against Omar, given the GOP’s narrow majority.

But on Wednesday, all 218 House Republicans present voted to move forward with the measure, as Democrats remained united in support of Omar with 209 votes. A final vote is expected on Thursday as progressives rally around Omar.

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The Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) defended Omar, calling her an “esteemed and invaluable” legislator.

“You cannot remove a Member of Congress from a committee simply because you do not agree with their views. This is both ludicrous and dangerous,” CPC Chair Pramila Jayapal said in a statement on Monday.

The resolution

The resolution aimed at Omar, introduced by Ohio Republican Max Miller on Tuesday, cites numerous controversies involving the congresswoman’s criticism of Israel and US foreign policy.

“Congresswoman Omar clearly cannot be an objective decision-maker on the Foreign Affairs Committee given her biases against Israel and against the Jewish people,” Miller said in a statement.

Omar retorted by saying there was nothing “objectively true” about the resolution, adding that “if not being objective is a reason to not serve on committees, no one would be on committees”.

While the Republican resolution accuses Omar of anti-Semitism, it only invokes remarks relating to Israel, not the Jewish people.

For example, the measure calls out the congresswoman for describing Israel as an “apartheid state”, although leading human rights groups – including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch – have also accused Israel of imposing a system of apartheid on Palestinians.

Early in her congressional career in 2019, Omar faced a firestorm of criticism when she suggested that political donations from pro-Israel lobby groups – including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – drive support for Israel in Washington.

Omar later apologised for that remark but Palestinian rights advocates say accusations of anti-Semitism against Israel’s critics aim to stifle the debate around Israeli government policies.

In the past two years, AIPAC and other pro-Israel organisations spent millions of dollars in congressional elections to defeat progressives who support Palestinian human rights, including Michigan’s Andy Levin, a left-leaning, Jewish former House member.

‘Different standards’

Although the Democratic Party is standing behind Omar now, the Republican resolution prominently features previous criticism against the congresswoman by top Democrats.

Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, an advocacy and research group, said Republicans are trying to validate their talking points against Omar by using the statements and actions of Democrats.

“They own this,” she said of Democrats who previously attacked Omar. “They made a decision in the last few years to jump on board and score political points at Ilhan’s expense … And that decision is now the basis for the resolution that is being used to throw her off the committee.”

Friedman added that Omar and her fellow Muslim-American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib are held to “different standards” when it comes to addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Both legislators were the subject of racist attacks by former President Donald Trump who in 2019 tweeted that they, along with other progressive congresswomen of colour, “should go back to the broken and crime-infested places from which they came”.

Omar in particular became a frequent target of Trump’s anti-refugee rhetoric in the lead-up to the 2020 elections. At one rally in 2019, Trump failed to intervene as his supporters chanted “send her back” in reference to Omar.

Friedman said attacks on Omar appeal to the Republican base and play well for the party politically.

“It’s a really handy way to embarrass and corner Democrats because when Democrats vote against this tomorrow, the Republican argument is going to be: ‘I don’t get it. You said all these things [against Omar]. Why are you not holding her accountable?’ Politically, this is just fantastic for them.”

For her part, Omar has remained defiant, calling McCarthy’s effort to remove her from the committee, against initial opposition from his own caucus, “pathetic”.

Yasmine Taeb, legislative and political director at MPower Change Action Fund, a Muslim-American advocacy group, praised Omar’s commitment to a “human rights-centered foreign policy”.

“Rep. Omar speaks truth to power – a rarity in Congress. And House Republican leadership would rather waste time by attacking a progressive Black Muslim woman and pushing a far-right agenda than working on addressing the needs of the American people,” Taeb told Al Jazeera in an email.

Omar has been a vocal proponent of human rights and diplomacy in Congress. While her comments about Israel often make headlines, she criticises other countries too – including those in the Middle East – for human rights violations.

Still, critics accuse her of perpetuating anti-Semitic tropes in her criticism of Israel and even allies have described some of her comments as “sloppy”, if not malicious.

On Thursday, Win Without War, a group that promotes diplomacy in US foreign policy, decried the Republican push against Omar as an attempt to strip the House Foreign Affairs Committee of a “progressive champion and skilled legislator who challenges the political status quo”.

“Rep. Omar has helped raise the bar for progressive foreign policy in Congress. She has steadfastly advocated for cuts to the Pentagon budget, held US allies accountable for human rights abuses, and confronted the racism and Islamophobia present in US foreign policy,” Win Without War executive director Sara Haghdoosti said in a statement.

Committee wars

Congressional committees serve as specialised microcosms of Congress. The panels advance legislation, conduct oversight and hold immense power over the legislative process.

Usually, the party in power appoints the chairs and majority members of committees, while the opposition party names its own legislators to the panels.

But back in 2021, Democrats voted to remove Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene from her assigned committees for past conspiratorial, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic comments.

That same year, the Democratic House majority also formally rebuked Paul Gosar, another far-right Republican, for sharing an animated video that depicted him killing Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Now, Greene is an outspoken proponent of removing Omar from the Foreign Affairs Committee.

“No one should be on that committee with that stance towards Israel,” Greene said earlier this week. “In my opinion, I think it’s the wrong stance for any member of Congress of the United States – having that type of attitude towards our great ally, Israel.”

After Greene was stripped of her committee assignments, McCarthy had openly promised payback against the Democrats if they became the minority in the House, an event that came to pass in the 2022 midterm elections.

“You’ll regret this. And you may regret this a lot sooner than you think,” McCarthy said at that time.

The newly elected speaker has also blocked Democrats Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell from joining the intelligence committee. Schiff was the former chair of the panel.

Meanwhile, Republican Congressman George Santos, who is facing calls to step down for lying about his heritage and professional and personal history, “temporarily recused” himself from committee assignments as he is being investigated over his campaign conduct.

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Former interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen steps down as MP

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Member of Parliament and former interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen has resigned her seat in the House of Commons.

Bergen, 58, has represented the Manitoba riding of Portage—Lisgar since 2008. She served as interim leader of the Conservatives and leader of the Opposition from February to September 2022. Prior to that, she served as deputy leader of the Conservatives.

In a video posted to Twitter Wednesday, Bergen said she has submitted a letter of resignation, “ending an incredible and very fulfilling 14 years.”

Bergen thanked her constituents, family, volunteers, staff and political colleagues “on both sides of the aisle, regardless of your political stripe.”

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Bergen announced in September of last year that she would not seek reelection. Pierre Poilievre replaced her as Conservative leader that month.

Bergen did not give a specific reason for her resignation and did not mention any future plans.

“I’m choosing to leave now not because I’m tired or I’ve run out of steam. In fact, it’s the exact opposite,” she said in the video.

“I feel hopeful and re-energized. Hopeful for our strong and united Conservative Party, and our caucus, under the courageous and principled leadership of my friend, Pierre Poilievre.”

Bergen ended her goodbye message on a hopeful note.

“With God’s grace and God’s help, I believe that the best is yet to come. Thank you so much Portage—Lisgar, and thank you Canada.”

The Toronto Star was the first to report the story.

“On behalf of the Conservative Party of Canada, thank you Candice for your leadership, your devotion to our Conservative movement and your service to the people of Portage—Lisgar, and all Canadians,” Poilievre said in a tweet Wednesday.

The news means there will be a byelection in Portage—Lisgar to replace Bergen.

Manitoba Finance Minister Cameron Friesen announced last week that he’d step down as an MLA to seek the federal Conservative nomination in the riding.

The death of MP Jim Carr late last year set up a byelection in another Manitoba riding — Winnipeg South Centre. The Alberta riding of Calgary Heritage and the Ontario riding of Oxford are also up for byelections later this year.

“I thank her for her many years of service,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said of Bergen in a media scrum Wednesday.

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