Rhetoric is the “art and science” of persuasion. Despite teaching this subject, Aristotle disagreed with it, for its application gave power to weaker arguments. However he deemed it necessary to teach this discipline to all ambitious young men as a defence against weak arguments, therefore raising the threshold of competence required for success in rational debate.
And this is true today not only for government and mainstream politics, but this dynamic is equally true of organisational politics. Anyone with more than a few months experience working in organisational life will recognise that the reality is that there are Machiavellian characters that are pursuing self serving agendas wreaking havoc and denting bottom lines. Not to mention damaging the careers of the people with higher integrity who have the organisations’ best interests at heart. Talented managers need to equip themselves quickly with political skill and savvy if they are to thrive.
Since programme management is at the forefront of change within organisations more and more people are realising the need for their project staff to increase their political nouse. Since Jeffrey Pfeffer asserted as long ago as 1982 that power and politics was about “getting things done”, it’s surprising how few have caught on. In fact, in a survey a few years ago, only 14% of IT personnel admitted they were politically active, which pales into insignificance against the 54% of general managers!
Unfortunately the most common organisational mindset is that politics is a taboo subject and one which is seldom explicitly discussed let alone productively addressed. However modern scholars are convinced that success in corporate life is hugely dependent on political skill. Gerald Ferris and his colleagues in the US have worked extensively in identifying and measuring political skill and have concluded “we believe that effective use of political skill will become increasingly important to a manager’s career”. Professor Jean Hartley last year asserted that “political skills cannot be viewed as the domain of the specialist, but as a mainstream element of leadership across all sectors”. She also advised that “If you really want an organisation to achieve success in today’s complex environment, you cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the political dimension of your business or service”.
We are starting to see the signs that more enlightened leaders are beginning to pay heed. As a business we focus on power, influence and organisational politics and we are regularly asked to present our research, experience and ideas to enthusiastic audiences who are all eager to learn. Typically these are populated by talented individuals who are fed up with seeing their honest endeavours wasted at the hands of the Machiavellian office politician. They all have a story to tell and some battle scars to show. They are begging the question “what can we do”. Our answer to this is to focus on developing your political skills to leverage your competence, your ideas and your career. This is vital and should form a part of every skills development programme.
Much is already known about this skill, however until recently, for most organisations positive organisational politics has been hidden within competency frameworks under a variety of sub skill sets like communication; influencing, networking and negotiation to name but a few, but these are only part of the solution. We believe that political skill should be given much sharper focus.
Based on our experience and research we have identified some of the key constituent elements that will move us towards providing a curriculum for the development of political skill.
Social Astuteness. The skill needed to effectively interact with other humans at a social level. This includes being able to read people well and take notice of how people are being affected by behaviour.
Organisational Astuteness. The ability to be able to read the organisation. How it operates and in what context it exists. Who are the key players, how are they connected and in a sense, how to predict group reactions. Attached to this is the skill of being able to build effective group influencing strategies
Interpersonal Influence. The set of skills that enable one to effectively persuade, reason, negotiate at both an individual and a group level. To be able to counter other moves, build power, network and build coalitions and consensus.
Networking Ability. The ability to build strategic social capital with a wider group of individuals that can be utilised either now or maybe at some point in the future.
Engendering Trust. This has been identified as the foundation for authentic and sustainable political skill. To be able to display high levels of integrity, to empathise, self disclose and build enduring relationships with human beings.
Each of these dimensions can be broken down so that individuals and coaches can identify specific and practical developmental interventions.
The threshold for success within organisations is rising. As both the internal and external commercial environment becomes more competitive, and the legislative environment becomes ever more complex, the need for strong and authentic political skills is increasing. Those that have it (backed up by strong performance within their work) will be able to neutralise the Machiavellian efforts of less able, albeit politically competent individuals who, acting out of self interest, could cause you and your organisation considerable harm. We cannot stress our belief strongly enough, that you need to take this skill set seriously. If you are to fulfil your potential in your career, or in fact in life, you need to become increasingly proficient in this area.