Political savvy is a vital competence for any executive, but it’s not taught in leadership or grad school courses. In fact, the term ‘office politics’ has received a bad rap. (Words like ‘Machiavellian,’ ‘manipulative,’ and ‘conspiratorial’ come to mind.)
Tales of political sabotage, power plays and turf wars are part of any organization’s history. Nonetheless, political competence is the one skill everyone wishes to have more of–but no one talks about it.
Until recently, few books explained how to use political competence to build one’s career, improve a team’s results or boost the company’s bottom line. Samuel B. Bacharach, director of Cornell University’s Institute for Workplace Studies, recently published Get Them on Your Side. Rick Brandon and Marty Seldman have written Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success. Art Kleiner weighs in with Who Really Matters: The Core Group Theory of Power, Privilege, and Success.
Political competence is the “ability to understand what you can and cannot control, when to take action, who is going to resist your agenda, and whom you need on your side. It’s about knowing how to map the political terrain and get others on your side, as well as lead coalitions,” according to Prof. Bacharach.
Many individuals have good ideas that, if implemented, could yield positive results for their companies. Sometimes, these ideas fall flat because the leaders who propose them cannot gain support from key people.
Defining Political Savvy
It’s naive to suggest that all office politics are destructive and unethical. If you define politics in such a narrow and negative way, you overlook the value of political awareness and skill. If political astuteness is combined with the right values, it can be an advantage for you, your team and your organization.
“Organizational politics are informal, unofficial, and sometimes behind-the-scenes efforts to sell ideas, influence an organization, increase power, or achieve other targeted objectives,” according to Brandon and Seldman in Survival of the Savvy.
In this definition, there is nothing either positive or negative about politics. The term is value-free. Whether organizational politics are destructive or constructive is determined by two criteria:
- Whether the targeted objectives reflect the company’s interests or merely one’s self-interest.
- Whether the influence efforts used to achieve these objectives have integrity
Political savvy and skill can help ethical, competent leaders sell their ideas and influence others to benefit the organization.
Ignore at Your Own Risk
There are several important reasons to acquire political savvy:
- Ignoring its existence is akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. When political astuteness is combined with ethics and integrity, it can produce positive results for you, your team and your organization.
- By avoiding or denying its existence, you underestimate how political behavior can destroy careers, a company’s reputation and overall performance.
- If you define politics in only negative terms, you are naively under-political, which leaves you vulnerable to overly political, self-serving individuals.
- You must develop political skills to survive and thrive in any organization. Overly political people can–and do–earn positions of power, and they can damage competent, loyal individuals who don’t play their game. You need high-integrity political tactics to play a better game. Non-manipulative tactics can help you harness the power of politics in a way that brings results. Political astuteness can be a character virtue and a company asset–if you learn to use it ethically.
Three Phases of Political Competence
Political competence is a three-phase process:
1. Map Your Political Terrain
First, identify all stakeholders–anyone who has an interest in, or who would be affected by, your idea–and how they will react. Some resistance is inevitable. You must anticipate others’ reactions, identify allies and resisters, analyze their goals and understand their agendas.
When you face objections, don’t go to individuals’ bosses or peers to undercut their arguments. Instead, ask them questions to determine their goals. A stakeholder may share your goal, but not your implementation approach; disagree with your goal, but share your approach to change; share neither; or share both. You can identify potential allies and resisters with direct questioning.
2. Get Others on Your Side
Build your coalition–a politically mobilized group committed to implementing your idea because doing so will generate valued benefits.
Creating coalitions is the most critical step in exercising your political competence. How do you win support? You need to be credible. You communicate credibility by letting potential allies and resisters know about your expertise, demonstrating personal integrity, and showing you have access to important people and information.
Through informal conversations, meetings and office drop-ins, you need to explain your position.
3. Make Things Happen
You must win others’ buy-in by making it clear there’s a payoff for supporting your effort and drawbacks for not joining your coalition. Show how implementing your idea will ease their workload, increase their visibility within the organization or help them cut costs in their unit.
Once you’ve persuaded people to join your coalition, you’ve established a base that will legitimize your idea. Coalition members will then use their networks to evangelize for you.
As the coalition grows, don’t lose sight of the need for active leadership to keep members focused and sustain momentum. Watch for complacency and manage conflicts and disagreements over goals or processes. These are inevitable and must be resolved.
Mastering only certain parts of the three identified phases will not yield success. Politically competent leaders map the terrain, get people on their side by building a coalition and lead the coalition to achieve results.