Master the Art of the Political Conversation

CIOs must be able to identify, assess and de-escalate in political conversations.

The CIO of a midsize international retailer is approached by the CMO aggressively demanding a new system to support a product. Caught off guard and unwilling to argue with the CMO, the CIO agrees to work on the project, despite reservations about budget and timing.

How could the CIO have handled the situation for a better outcome?

Read More: How to Say No Assertively [Video]

“The origin of this research has been working with many clients and having conversations that started with “I had this horrible interaction with the CEO…and it went terribly badly. How could I have made it turn it out differently,” said Tina Nunno, vice president and Gartner fellow, at Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in Barcelona, Spain.

It’s not a situation foreign to most executives. Being able to navigate the politics of the office can be challenging. CIOs need to have tools to use to gain a better outcome from an escalating or awkward conversation.  

Gartner analyst tina nunno speaking at the Gartner Symposium ITxpo
Tina Nunno, vice president and Gartner fellow, speaking to CIOs at Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in Barcelona, Spain.

Are you having a political discussion?

First, CIOs need to be able to identify when they are caught in a political discussion. For example, if you’re trying to explain that the reason a project is running late is because the other person’s team isn’t showing up to meetings for the business process and the other executive responds by blaming your team, you’re probably entering a dangerous area. Denying facts can often mean that something else is going on, but it does indicate a political conversation.

A second indicator can be if the person is using status and is moving away from facts toward more emotionally driven arguments. In those cases, CIOs need to handle the conversation carefully.

Essentially, any alteration in how the individual usually behaves may be an indicator of a political discussion. For example, one CIO Nunno spoke with realized something was off when the other executive was being overly friendly. That can be a signal that something else is probably happening.

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What outcomes do you want from a discussion?

First, CIOs must resolve the immediate discussion. Secondly, the goal shouldn’t be just to win, but to win someone over. Winning is entertaining, but an ideal outcome is to have the other person understand you or the issue better. Finally, optimize the long-term relationship. Each conversation is an opportunity to build on a relationship and make you better co-workers.

One technique to master, according to Nunno, is the art of the stall. This means buying yourself more time to think and process a problem before trying to solve it. For example, use phrases like “Tell me more” or “Run through this one more time to be sure I understand.” Not only will this add information for you to process, it gives you more time to think before responding.

Is this your problem?

CIOs also need to consider what an appropriate engagement is for them and determine their role in that engagement. This will depend on how much the issue matters to you and how much power you have to resolve the situation. If the relevance to your job or department is low, it’s okay to do nothing and be an observer. If you have minimal interest and power you can also act as an advisor, offering your opinion but not lobbying hard.

For issues where you are more relevant and have some power, become a broker and come up with a solution. This will enable you to work with groups and also increase your power level. Do this only when the parties involved will listen to you. Finally, if the issue is highly relevant and something in your department, you become the owner.

Decide where you want to have the conversation

Consider who will witness to the conversation — is it happening in private or at a team meeting? With no audience, consider the territory. For example, if a co-worker keeps coming to your office to discuss heavy matters, tell him you have a personal call to make and you’ll follow up with him later. If the location is acceptable, do you have all the information you need or is one of you agitated? If one party is already stirred up, it’s best to put off the conversation.

Read More: The Key to Correcting in Public [Video]

If this conversation starts with an audience at a meeting, you might not have a choice but to engage in public. A strict abiding to the “praise in public, criticize in private” is good for performance management, but not for political conversations.  

Don’t escalate

Finally, while having this conversation, it’s critical to avoid certain escalation language triggers such as, “You’re wrong” or “You’re being difficult” or “You did X, and that’s why this is happening.” The key is to stay in the present and future: “The project is running late. What can we do?” Also, avoid saying “I” and “You” — use “We” to make it a two-party dialogue.


Gartner clients can read more in the full research Mastering the Art of Saying No for CIOs by Tina Nunno, et al.

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