Managing power dynamics at work
How politically savvy are you?
You spend hours on your proposal, making tiny little improvements on every page. You’ve even gone the extra mile to ensure that it’s visually engaging, with suitable pictures and graphs to strengthen your recommendations. Yet, when you deliver it, you receive a lukewarm response.
You wonder: am I not good enough?
Why are my ideas not getting the attention it deserves?
Political savvy is a critical leadership skill
Perhaps you’re ignoring one critical part of the equation – this thing Dr Jane Horan calls ‘political savvy‘.
An author, speaker and leadership expert, Dr Horan has been helping organisations build savvy, inclusive work environments and meaningful careers for years, her consulting work focusing on Fortune 100 companies, NGOs and academic institutions across Asia, North America and Europe.
Is political savvy a critical leadership skill? Dr Horan argues that it is, undoubtedly, so.
“Political savvy is part of every leadership competency framework. The Leadership Architecture by Lominger lists, ‘political savvy’ as number 48 on their competency framework. Lominger uses the terms, skilled, unskilled and overused skill. The last remark under the skilled definition is, ‘a maze-bright person’,” Dr Horan explains.
Being more politically aware
She goes on to share that in 1995, Daniel Goleman defined political awareness, in his book, Working With Emotional Intelligence as ”people with the competence to accurately read key power relationships, detect crucial social networks, understand the forces that shape views, and actions of clients, customers or competitors, and accurately read organisational and external realities”.
Lominger reinforces crucial social networks indicating that a skilful politically savvy manager not only understands politically complex situations but is also sensitive to how people and organisations function.
Goleman suggests, in his book, that we all need to appreciate the political realities, behind the scenes network and coalition building to wield influence – regardless of level. In this sense, Goleman touches on the original Greek definition of politics specifically “to build coalitions for the good of the state”.
In some ways, Lominger and Goleman examine political savvy in terms of empathy, the ability to understand, experience or feel what another person is experiencing without reacting to the situation.
In her view, Dr Horan explains that reframing politics from this perspective illustrates the links to leadership. “Every leader needs to build coalitions for the good of the organisation, function, community or business. The emphasis is on the other, rather than self. No doubt there is a negative side of political savvy, just as there is a negative side to driving results.
As Lominger describes overusing this skill results in trust, transparency and integrity issues. The over-skilled politician may appear manipulative or scheming. If we understand political savvy as a leadership competency then, organisations should help the next generation of leaders build this competency. Simon Baddeley and Kim James, two professors from the UK, developed a useful model of political skills based on what we read and carry into situations and conversations. Their model illustrates a powerful framework for holistic leadership development. In essence, Political Savvy, Organisational Savvy, Political Awareness or whatever we call it, is part of being Emotionally Intelligent, something every leader must have,” she explains.
Reframe the issue
This brings us to the issue of how managers can get a better understanding of politics and power within their organisations. It starts with how political savvy is framed: do you have time for politics?
In Dr Horan’s opinion, to begin, we must reframe political savvy from the negative to the positive, seeing both sides of this competency. Baddeley and James focus on ‘reading and carrying’ skills. This is not easy to do but can be learned.
She clarifies, “Realise that no context remains the same inside organisations, working with clients, boss, team or colleagues. Therefore the ability to ‘read’ the context needs to be a dynamic process. Taking a new role at work can highlight the need to understand a new way of working, systems and people. Often this tends to fade with familiarity. Equally, what we ‘carry’ varies from situation to situation. That is, carrying defensiveness into a meeting will have a very different impact than carrying a feeling of confidence. These two dimensions are inextricably linked. Besides reading and carrying, savvy requires intuition and empathy.”
In essence, first, take a step back to examine your gut feelings and reactions. Second, reflect on how you’re reading the situation and what you bring into the conversation. Third, use an empathic model to uncover and accept the different perspectives and differences in others. Political savvy is not hard to master.
Dr Jane Horan is founder of The Horan Group, a strategic consulting firm helping organisations build savvy, inclusive work environments and meaningful careers. Her consulting work is focused on diversity and inclusion, political savvy, unconscious bias and career transitions. Holding an Educational Doctorate from Bristol University in Leadership Education, Dr Horan is currently a Senior Fellow with the Conference Board Human Capital Committee. Dr Horan’s next book on finding a meaningful career will be published next month.
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This article has been adapted and was originally published in the New Straits Times in March 2017
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