Individual contributors focus on solving domain problems, but as you move up the ladder personality management becomes another aspect of the job.
There’s a famous saying in poker that you don’t play the cards, you play the man. For those who aren’t poker players, the idea is simple. If you have a good hand and start raising significantly, while for bad hands you fold or raise little, everyone will know what’s in your hand and they will fold or stay in as appropriate for them. But in poker bluffing is part of the game. You very much can, and should, if possible, convince your opponent to fold even though you’re holding a bad hand. Likewise, when you have a good hand, you don’t let them know that and keep them on the hook as you keep raising the stakes until you win the hand with a bigger pot. Bluffing has little to do with the cards and a lot to do with how you interact with the other people at the table.
As an individual contributor, people tend to play the cards. Your job is to create a report, run a campaign, or execute some task. Most of the time you should look to do it as efficiently as possible, where efficiently can mean quickly, cheaply, and/or optimizing to some other metric(s).
As a manager you should still be playing the cards. Much of your job is getting the team to efficiently do some work. However, it’s no longer just about the output. The further up you go the more there will be competing interests. Decisions made by more senior people are often judgment calls (if it was objective and easy, a less senior person could do it) and the winds of office politics blow stronger the higher up the ladder you go.
The classic trope is when you go to your boss not with one proposal but with three. The first is too big and expensive, the second is too small and not bold enough, but the third is just right. You know which proposal you wanted from the start, but you also know if your boss doesn’t feel like he has contributed to the decision, he won't like the idea, or will tweak it in some other way. You weren’t just playing the cards but playing the man.
Consider a more complex situation. Suppose you have some logical way of implementing some operations process at work. To do it the logical way means more work for the sales team and less work for the finance team. To do it in a different way means the opposite, less work for the sales team but more for the finance team. Playing the cards only means following the process optimal for the company, making the sales team do more work.
But in this company the head of finance is the go-to person for the CEO. The head of sales has been in the doghouse for the past six months. If you just play the cards, and argue for the first option, you’ll upset the head of finance and may get political repercussions. It might be more efficient for the company, but it’s less efficient for you and your team.
This isn’t just about saving your behind. You may have other initiatives in the interest of the company but if the head of finance is going to block you in the future, you’ll be less helpful to the company. So you don’t just play the cards, but play the men, the other people in the company and their interests.
Of course, if you only play the people and ignore the cards in your job then you’re gone too far to one side on the political spectrum. At this extreme you’ve stopped focusing on the right thing to do for the company and just on what someone else in power wants. You’re not a poker player, but a sycophant.
In an ideal world we’d all sit down and be aligned on goals. Not only would we have perfect agreement on corporate goals, but all our personal goals for projects and career advancement would perfectly align without conflict. If you believe in that reality, enjoy some porridge with your house-dwelling ursine friends. For the rest of us, we need to realize that as you get more senior, the personal motivations and preferences will blend with objective reasoning and we can’t just play the cards or the man, we have to play them both.
It’s critical to learn about corporate culture before you accept a job offer but it can be awkward to raise such questions. Learn what to ask and how to ask it to avoid landing yourself in a bad situation.