Political Intelligence

by Don Morley and David Bancroft-Turner

The Political Intelligence model

This updated model uses political intelligence for the vertical axis and goal alignment on the horizontal axis.

Political Intelligence model

Moving up the political intelligence axis

Most of us probably start our working life with little awareness of just how organisations really work. To acquire this awareness, you must first develop the ability to read and understand an organisation’s culture and its decision processes. You also need to be tuned in to the location of power (bases) within the organisation and the power that individual managers possess. Recognition of the formal and informal organisational structures and communication channels is another aspect of this awareness building.

Even people in mid-career may be thrown off-balance following acquisition or merger. This is because the ‘norms’ have been overtaken by events and take time to be re-established. Frequent change can have the same effect.

To climb the axis entails turning awareness into political intelligence and using this ability and knowledge effectively.

Some organisations appoint young high flyers as PAs to senior executives, or something similar, precisely in order to expose them to the way the organisation really works. For others, mentors and coaches can assist in this process of building political know how.

The goal alignment axis

There will be many occasions in a career when difficult choices need to be made.

Take a simple example: it is 5pm; do you leave the office in order to get to that football match or carry on working because you really need to be better prepared for tomorrow’s meeting? Which is more important: your immediate personal goal or the organisation’s?

Fortunately, given a little bit of thought and creativity, the two seemingly conflicting requirements can often be reconciled. In this example, the solution may be as simple as taking home some reading that can be done on the train.

The horizontal axis distinguishes between individuals who are more inclined to put themselves first and those who find ways of appropriately balancing their own goals with those of the organisation. The sole trader has no such problem, but in public organisations there are always other stakeholders to be considered, and this is where the conflict arises.

Take another example: you are asked to lay off three salesmen to save costs and yet are still required to achieve the original sales target. Firstly, you like to be popular and this isn’t going to help your cause. Secondly, on a personal level, you are faced with a lot more work if the target is going to be hit.

The temptation is to put your needs first and resist the request. Alternatively, you could aim towards the best outcome in the circumstances, for you and the organisation.

  • Could it be that the three selected to leave might well be seen as ‘passengers’ who have historically contributed less to the team anyway?
  • Can you negotiate extra bonus for yourself and the reduced team if the target is met?
  • Is there promotion money that could be tapped to make the selling task easier, despite the loss of staff?

Your approach will indicate whether you are aligned to the right or left of the axis. Some people are natural team players and it is the team’s result that counts. Others are far more individually competitive; to these people their own performance is far more important.

Or perhaps you were overlooked for promotion last time, so now you are determined to ensure that the next one comes your way, regardless of what it takes? In your corporate culture, it may be a case of the survival of the fittest, with no holds barred; managers are expected to ‘fight their corner’. When you look up the ranks of the organisation, all you see is predominantly ambitious, aggressive and seemingly selfish role models.

You may not have started at the left end of the axis; corporate experiences may have pushed you that way. However, you run a risk, when taking this approach, of resistance and lack of cooperation from colleagues who do not share your outlook.