Last post I admitted to a dislike for office politics. At the same time, I maintained that political acumen is essential for surviving, if not thriving, in most organizations. To figure out how to develop political skill, let’s start with my definition:
Political Acumen – The ability to understand and influence others given real or perceived differences in power
Think about this in the context of local, state and national politics. Ideally, our elected politicians seek to understand the needs of their constituents, and influence others to take appropriate actions on behalf of those constituents. At the same time, politicians must pay attention to power – the power of money (donors, fund-raisers), the power of voting blocks, the power of other politicians, the power of causes, the power of perception.
In my coaching, perhaps the greatest resistance I encounter when I broach the topic of political acumen is what I’ve come to think of as a “take me as I am” view. In such cases, clients feel strongly they should not have to modify behavior, especially in deference to the power elite. They feel they should be judged on the strength of their results. I always respond, “You’re absolutely right. In an ideal world, you would be recognized and rewarded based on merit. The question you have to examine is whether you work in an ideal world.”
Others who pride themselves on “not playing politics” may go out of their way to challenge authority, speaking contrary opinions loudly and indiscriminately. Such individuals inevitably get labeled as “not a team player.” This is the kiss of death for career advancement.
So if you’re still hanging on to baggage around office politics, consider this an area of skill that can be used to support your own career goals and those of the organization.
Speaking of baggage, perhaps the most contentious element in my definition has to do with power. Most of us probably relate to the quote of Lord Acton in 1987: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He also went on to say, “Great men are almost always bad men.” In this spirit, power is seen as a manifestation of greed, avarice, and corruption. If you hold this interpretation of power, then you would understandably want to avoid power – unless you’re evil.
Here is a more useful and workable interpretation of power:
Power - The ability to influence one’s environment.
On a personal level, power in the form of money allows one to buy a nice house in a good neighborhood, major aspects of environment. Schools, cars, clothes, jewelry, club memberships – all are manifestations of power.
Returning to the world of business organizations, a VP might have the authority to approve an expense of, say, $50,000. A manager in the same company may have authority to sign for $5,000. By this measure, we could agree the VP has more power.
Compared to a manager, a VP will more frequently connect with the company’s top executives and owners. So if a manager and a VP each has an idea about how the company can grow, the VP is more likely to: a) be granted an audience with decision-makers, and b) get buy-in to her idea based on relationships. This is another manifestation of how power differentials play out.
Title and formal authority are not the only sources of power. Knowledge and competence can be potent sources of power. Many companies have a go-to person who is so smart or capable that colleagues fight to get him or her on their project teams.
A key strategy in building one’s own power and political clout in an organization is to assess who has what power. Those with higher rank are obvious, but who among them carries the most influence with the top executive or owner? Who has critical skill, knowledge or experience to help get something done? Which clients have the most political pull? If two executives are engaged in a political battle, and you are pressured to choose a side, which side do you choose? While devoting energy to such considerations may seem inefficient and unproductive, many (most?) organizations orient to such nuances.
Bottom line, political acumen requires a blend of talents: assessing, interpreting, discriminating, communicating and deciding when and where to act based on those many and varied interpretations. When you come right down to it, these same skills are essential for managing, leading, marketing, selling, project management, client services, etc…