Political Savvy – Warning! Avoiding politics at work won’t make you a leader

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Do you find organisational politics grubby? Feel it goes against your values and believe your competence and performance should speak for itself in terms of your leadership reputation and promotion prospects?  Isn’t organisational politics basically tacky, game-playing and a manipulative waste of time and totally self-serving?

The problem with approaching it like that

I see women and their careers get hijacked by their political naivety. They’re doing a great job (and they are) they are totally committed and focused on that when someone less able gets promoted above them or their brilliant plan is scuppered, thinking they were working on the right stuff, but were they?  Sideswipes like that are tough and confusing, they build resentment and feelings of unfairness and being an outsider.

So what’s going on?  Exactly. You don’t know. The more senior we become, the more we need to get our heads up from what we are already good at and start building and demonstrating new and additional competencies. And that includes political savvy.

Here’s why it’s important

If you want to be a change agent (and by the way that’s what leaders are for) you need to influence. To be able to influence you need to understand how decisions are made where you work. You need to really ‘get’ the sources of power in your organisation. Basically we need to learn to read again – the people, the room, the culture, the system.

Political savvy is important because:

  • It gets your and your teams ‘big important stuff’ done
  • It gives you authority
  • It builds credibility as others want to see you are able to do it
  • It builds trust as your troops expect you to manage in that way
  • It will build your leadership reputation

I hear you saying, so I have to sell out?! No, it doesn’t have to mean that, the thing you are selling is your ideas and your value. Stay with me here.

How to approach it

We’ve all seen political behaviour in organisations that frankly makes us sick – psychological game playing, self-serving behaviour that has nothing to do with the interests of the organisation. That can encourage a negative mind-set about acquiring political skills. When political savvy is simply about being strategic and ensuring you are optimising your influence as a leader – and you can do that with integrity.

Operating with integrity and being politically sophisticated is not an either/or.  Have a look at the following and plot where you might be on these axes.

Penny de ValkThis grid is based on the work of Simon Baddeley and Kim James, of the Institute of Local Government Studies, Birmingham University. Read more about their work here, operating politically with integrity.  

How can I become politically savvy if it doesn’t come naturally?

Just be curious, really get under the skin of ‘how we do things around here’. You still get to choose how or if you participate.  But being naïve to it is not an option. You’re not selling out. Nor are you a victim of the system. You remain in charge of how, and to what end, you exercise these skills. That means holding onto knowing the value you bring to the organisation and staying really clear about that.

It helped me when I understood the difference between culture and climate.  Culture is ‘how we do things around here’. Climate on the other hand is ‘how we feel about how things are done around here’. And I chose to move on from two leadership roles in my career, with real sadness, because I really didn’t like ‘how things were done around here’.  I didn’t belong there. And I don’t regret those decisions.

Here’s what I mean

First you need to move your brain from what you don’t want to do, to what you do want to do. As for that self-serving snake? You don’t have to be that person.  Instead, think of what you do want to do and can do like building relationships and being strategic. If you were designing a communications campaign for example you would identify all the stakeholders and the people you needed to influence.

Leadership requires us to be conscious of our behaviour and the impact our behaviour has on those around us, it confers a responsibility to be both self-aware and socially-aware. Click To Tweet

As Bonnie Marcus in her book The Politics of Promotion says ‘social effectiveness is political savvy’. Listen to my podcast with Bonnie Marcus here. And you know you are already skilled in social effectiveness in so many aspects of your life. So be yourself, leverage your relationship skills.

Don’t sneer with derision at politically savvy people, observe what they do, do it well your way with integrity, acknowledging you’ll struggle with stuff along the way. It’s tough getting to and staying in the top right quadrant. Just keep reminding yourself of the value you bring and what you are trying to achieve and you can be both politically savvy and honourable. Go build your leadership reputation for doing that. Work on being Sage Sarah.

As always thanks for reading this and sharing it. Feel free to read more on my blog page.

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