The Looking Glass: What company politics actually is

What you and your biggest work adversary have in common; the magic incantation in times of conflict; and 5 steps for disagreeing effectively

Julie Zhuo
10 min readOct 24, 2023

Dear readers,

For years and years, the greatest stress from my job came from conflict.

Being in a heated argument felt like flipping on an emergency siren in my brain. I hated the feeling.

Why did I hate it? The answer is layered in many mistaken beliefs and that pesky thing called ego.

What can we do about workplace conflict?

Actually, a lot, and the theme of today’s letter.

I hope some of these ideas help you see conflict in a different way.



This week’s tidbits:

  1. What company politics actually is (in most cases)
  2. What you and your biggest work adversary have in common
  3. The magic incantation in times of conflict
  4. From the archives: 5 steps for disagreeing effectively

For paid subscribers:

  1. Fast Q&A (from a recent subscriber chat)
  2. 7 phrases to use instead of “I don’t agree”
  3. The other side of conflict

What Company Politics Actually Is (in most cases)

When people say I hate dealing with politics in my workplace what they think they mean is:

I hate it when my colleagues prioritize their own interests over the team’s interests

but what they actually mean (in most cases) is:

I hate it when my colleagues don’t prioritize my own interests (which I believe to be the team’s interests)


I hate it when my teammates and I can’t read each others minds because getting on the same page is a lot of work when we all have different brains, see different perspectives, and struggle to translate all that into words the other person can understand.

In other words, what is often lumped into company politics is:

  1. Not seeing the shared goal
  2. Not being able to identify valid differences in assumptions
  3. Not communicating well enough to make 1 and 2 easy.

Yes there are bad actors in every company, and corrupt leadership at some. But if you believe your company’s leadership is generally competent, then what seems like company politics is probably more a framing / communication issue.

This is good news! Because while you can’t do much about actual company politics (except bitch or quit), you can make significant progress on framing and communication.

What you and your biggest work adversary have in common

I want you to close your eyes and imagine your biggest work adversary, the person you argue with the most. The one who is skeptical about everything you say and makes your blood pressure spike.

Now consider this.

The nice thing about work (as opposed to other things in life) is that it’s governed by a pretty simple rule:

If your company isn’t profitable after some period of time, everyone loses their jobs.

This means pretty much everyone at a company wants to see their company win, and win big!

Your company winning big leads to all sorts of rewards like: pride in your contributions, value to your customers, money (especially if there’s stock involved!), your mom telling all her friends that you work at that company that was just featured in that magazine, chances to lead as the company keeps hiring, an impressive line item added to your LinkedIn, and so on.

Who wouldn’t want that pot at the end of the rainbow?

Remember this when you’re slipping on your dueling gloves to go at it with your biggest work adversary.

Remember that no matter how much you disagree, you’re both better off if your company wins.

So instead of thinking “Which one of us is going to defeat the other?” let’s tweak the question just a bit.

How about: “Which of our positions is most likely to help our company win?

That sounds less threatening, doesn’t it? After all, we both want to help our company win.

Let’s take it one step further with another tweak: “What unique knowledge do we each have that will help our company win?”

Perhaps it’s not about Position A versus Position B at all.

Perhaps it’s about bringing our respective skills and context to solve the problem that helps our company win. Perhaps some elements of A and some elements of B are both useful. Or perhaps my concerns about A or your concerns about B help us push the final idea to be stronger.

There is a much bigger work adversary out there than your biggest work adversary: it is your biggest competitor looking to crush you, or it is a market that just doesn’t care.

Let’s appreciate our allies in the fight.

The magic incantation in times of conflict

If you ever find yourself:

  1. Taking 20+ minutes to compose a 2-sentence Slack response
  2. Taking 1+ hour to respond to an e-mail
  3. Raising your voice in a meeting

It’s time to use the the magic incantation:

Let’s continue this tomorrow

You can tack on a I’ve got more to say or I don’t think we can resolve this today or even I’m not feeling my best before the magic incantation, but use the incantation.

You can’t solve conflict when you’re seeing red.

You’ll probably make it worse if you keep at it.

Let the moment pass.

Go for a walk. Get a good night’s sleep.

It will be easier tomorrow.

From the Archives: 5 steps for disagreeing effectively

You know that feeling. Someone says something, and it strikes like a discordant note in your ear, a sharp twist in your gut, a teetering tower on the horizon.

You’re wrong! You want to shout. Your intuition, well-honed by years of thoughtful education, understands this before even your rational mind does. Something doesn’t quite sit right.

But you bite your tongue. Why? Well, you’ve tried shouting before, and it doesn’t tend to work. Besides, now your rational mind, huffing, has finally caught up, and it brings a long checklist of questions: Are you certain it’s wrong? Do you know what the right answer is? Are you sure you want to slow things down? Don’t make a fool of yourself! Be a team player!

Before you know it, the moment has passed, and you’ve said nothing. And you don’t say anything later either, because ultimately, disagreeing is hard. It is a risk to put yourself out there and force a confrontation. You could be wrong, or worse, you could be labeled disagreeable.

But constructive disagreement is a good thing. In fact, it is imperative for teams that want to get the best results. And it is one of the most empowering skills one can learn, because it enables your voice to be heard and have impact. In the process of writing my book, The Making of a Manager,” I put together a framework to break down the process of resolving a disagreement into these five steps.

1. Know your position

The first step to disagreeing well is to know where you stand and why. So often, I’ll see a design and have a gut reaction “I don’t like this.” But if I can’t figure out why or articulate the reason to myself, I have no business trying to explain it to someone else.

Before doing anything else, see if you can complete this sentence: “I [don’t agree with/don’t think we should do/don’t like] X because…”

Your answer doesn’t have to be right. But you first need to have an answer and feel good about it.

2. Get a gut check

This step is optional, but it’s so simple and effective you should always consider it. Before putting stating your disagreement loudly, see if your position resonates with a few trusted confidants. For example, say your team is making a decision to ship X. You’re worried the user experience is confusing. Pick another colleague or two whose opinion you respect and say, “Hey, I’m worried X is too confusing to be shippable. What do you think?” (This also can work well with your manager.)

If everyone tells you you’re overreacting, that doesn’t mean you’re wrong or that you shouldn’t speak up, but at least you’ll be prepared for what the most common responses are.

If you hear that your position does indeed resonate, you’ll go in feeling more confident in stating your position, with folks who can back you up if need be. These perspectives might also make you see something new or differently.

You don’t have to go into any disagreement alone. I’ve found that for 90% of the strong opinions I’ve held, I can find other people who also see that perspective and are willing to support me in it.

3. Frame all the options

Once you know your position and have run it through the gut check, you might be tempted to straight up declare your position in a meeting or via e-mail. Resist this.

In fact, the most effective way to have a conversation about a decision is to lay out all of the options or perspective on the table.

For example, if you’d like to secure funding for new initiative X within the team, and you know that’s controversial, don’t attempt to start the conversation with, “Here’s why we should do X.”

Instead, take a step back and say, “Here are all the proposals for initiatives we should fund” (of which X is one.) Or, if there aren’t other initiatives and it’s just a yes or no on X, say, “We need to decide whether or not to fund X. Here are the reasons why we should <list reasons>, and here are the reasons why we shouldn’t <list reasons>.”

The reason you want to frame up all the options is threefold. First, it makes it easy for everyone (including the decision maker) to know what they are deciding between. Second, it forces you to understand and empathize with the other side(s) because you can’t describe all the options objectively and convincingly if you don’t. Third, you come across as more objective and trustworthy if you do this.

Remember that you can always prepare a deck or write an e-mail to explain all the options as well as the pro/cons of each option. If you find yourself overwhelmed by how to win an argument, remember this step, which is essentially just doing research. Everyone should be able to agree on the framing, even if they have different opinions about what option they would choose. I find I always feel more in control if I can take a step back and enumerate every possibility on the table, like I’m approaching a fact-finding project.

4. Dig for the root assumptions

Once you have all the options or perspectives laid out, the next step is to figure out what assumptions would make reasonable people prefer Option A over Option B, or vice versa. For example, say you and your team are deciding which features to include in the MVP of your product. You think feature X should be included, but your teammate doesn’t think so. Why is that?

It may be that you think feature X is important for marketing. You think its inclusion helps tell the story of why your feature is awesome, and will attract people to use the product. Meanwhile, your teammate doesn’t think it will be used often (because she has data that indicates very few people will actually use feature X.)

You may actually agree on the facts: — X helps marketing, but X won’t be used much. And you can still disagree about the conclusion — should we include X in our MVP? — because your root assumptions are different. You may think marketing is very important, or that X has a disproportionate ability to improve marketing outcomes, or that X’s cost isn’t high. Maybe your teammate feels marketing isn’t important, or X isn’t that critical to marketing, or X is going to be very costly. Which of those is it?

The more specific you can be about where exactly your assumptions differ, the easier it is to figure out what to do. Sometimes once you isolate the disagreement, it becomes obvious how you can find the truth. (Like if the disagreement is that you think X is cheap to build, but your teammate thinks X will be expensive, you can go deeper with the engineering team to get a more accurate estimate.) Other times, you realize you just have a different philosophy, which is fine (maybe you think marketing is critical to the success of your product, but your teammate doesn’t think so), in which case, go to the next step.

5. Escalate for a decision

Once you have framed the options, extracted the differences in root assumption, and still can’t agree, swiftly escalate the decision to the appropriate decision-maker, making sure to include all the stakeholders and the agreed-upon framing.

The biggest mistake teams make is thinking that escalation is bad and should be avoided at all costs. As a result, they go around in circles rehashing the same arguments and trying to convince each other in an attempt to get to consensus.

Escalation isn’t bad! Once you’ve followed all these steps and you have a robust framing of the options, you should feel very comfortable escalating. A decision being made when all the perspectives are well-represented and clearly laid out is an excellent thing, because everyone will feel that the process was fair.

You won’t win every disagreement. We aren’t right all of the time. But hopefully, these steps will encourage you to speak up and help you feel empowered to create the changes you want to see.

Below are 3 more pieces for paid subscribers:

  1. Fast Q&A (from a recent subscriber chat)
  2. 7 phrases to use instead of “I don’t agree”
  3. The other side of conflict

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Julie Zhuo

Building Sundial ( Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager. Find me @joulee. I love people, nuance, and systems.