Political Intelligence

by Don Morley and David Bancroft-Turner

Common questions

  1. Why should I play politics when I see how people suffer as a result?
  2. Why are we always looking for someone to blame rather than solving the problem?
  3. Why do some individuals always appear to be better informed than others?
  4. Why do reorganisations and promotions regularly seem to favour some parties more than others?
  5. Why are all my colleagues political when I’m not?
  6. Why are some managers far more powerful than their level of seniority?
  7. How is it that while I am encouraged to be a team player, others seem to get away with acting alone?
  8. How is it many decisions seem to have been made before the meeting even takes place?
  9. Why do we waste so much time competing with each other rather than the real competition?

 

1. Why should I play politics when I see how people suffer as a result?

First, let’s be clear. All organisations have politics and you will be vulnerable if you don’t at least make the effort to understand what goes on and how the organisation really works. However, if you are of the opinion that all politics is bad, you may need to reconsider whether the activities listed below represent good or bad politics.

  • Networks – seeks out acquaintances in influential positions.
  • Builds up a support system/power base of useful connections.
  • Lobbies others to gain buy-in to their vision.
  • Seeds ideas/gets involved at different levels in the organisation.
  • Takes every opportunity to increase personal visibility.
  • Constantly gathers and uses information for personal effectiveness.
  • Presents arguments in a compelling fashion.

When carried out with integrity, such behaviour can hardly be construed as negative politics – unless you choose to see it that way.

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2. Why are we always looking for someone to blame rather than solving the problem?

Many organisations would admit to a blame culture and it often stems from individuals trying to gain advantage at the expense of colleagues. In addition, a competitive corporate culture, while motivational in some ways, can also create unhealthy practices. This will particularly be the case when change is taking place or when individuals find themselves competing for promotions, resources, even simply keeping their job.

In these circumstances political intelligence becomes a ‘must have’ competence for personal survival and to steer the organisation towards a more productive way of operating.

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3. Why do some individuals always appear to be better informed than others?

You attend all the meetings, you read the communiqués and you keep your ear to the ground – and yet you still get taken by surprise compared to some of your colleagues when certain announcements are made.

It would appear that they are networking with the right people – those who we would say are ‘in the know’. Of course, this takes time and effort and it cannot only be one way. You have to give in order to be able to receive. If you consider this to be a little ‘underhand’, the harsh reality is that in today’s business climate we neglect such activities at our peril. Like so much political behaviour, it is discretionary. How we go about it will determine whether it is good or bad politics (and ethics).

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4. Why do reorganisations and promotions regularly seem to favour some parties more than others?

It’s not just reorganisations and promotions either. Decisions of all kinds frequently seem to go in favour of certain individuals or their departments. The strength of their argument, the numbers put forward, even the quality of their presentation seem nothing out of the ordinary – yet the decision goes their way. Why should this be?

The answer will often be politics. The subtle work that goes on in advance, behind the scenes, and involving those who really wield the influence (as distinct from where they appear in the organisation chart) is what delivers these surprises. Either you continue to be frustrated by such outcomes or you determine to do something about it. Political intelligence underpins success in this area and it can be acquired – without bribery or arm twisting!

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5. Why are all my colleagues political when I’m not?

The probability is that they are saying exactly the same thing about you! It’s human nature to assemble all sorts of false assumptions and myths about others, so we easily fall into the trap of seeing others as playing politics. Our assessment may or may not be correct, but we continue to build the belief, looking out for the signs and assembling ‘the evidence’ that convinces us that he or she is an organisational politician who is best avoided.

Even if only 20 per cent of your managerial population is walking around with this unsubstantiated view of their colleagues (the statistics suggest it is far higher than this), it is not difficult to see how damaging this state of affairs can be for the performance of individuals and therefore the organisation. To break out of this stalemate, you need to become politically aware and acquire the appropriate skills – all of which can be found in this section.

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6. Why are some managers far more powerful than their level of seniority?

Have you noticed how certain managers seem to be relatively ineffective, in spite of their technical excellence, while others seem to operate and mix in circles well in advance of their position in the company?

The latter have made a conscious effort to:

  • Cultivate connections in the right places at the appropriate level
  • Tap into the informal communication channels
  • Be involved in task forces
  • Build alliances for their functions and their ideas
  • Play to their strengths and develop their power base
  • Maintain relationships with industry bodies, consultancies and so on.

This strong position does not come about by chance. It is the result of careful thought and considerable application, which they know to be well worth the effort.

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7. How is it that while I am slaving away as a team player, others seem to get away with doing their own thing?

The negative effect of politics often manifests itself in colleagues apparently working towards different ends. Here are you operating by the rules as you perceive them while others, by cunning or managerial neglect, put themselves ahead of co-workers and even the organisation’s best interest. By playing the negative politics game, they are pulling down themselves as well as the organisation.

However, when politics is used constructively, there are many benefits to performance, since people are more willing to share ideas, co-operate with each other and focus on the customer. Organisations benefit from innovation, greater job satisfaction and employee retention. Barriers to effective working relationships are removed, as higher levels of trust and teamwork become the norm. It will pay you to utilise this section to develop your political intelligence in order that these ‘game players’ can be converted or sidelined.

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8. How is it many decisions seem to have been made before the meeting even takes place?

Many decisions in organisations are made ahead of the meeting, which is then primarily for the purpose of ratifying and formalising something that has been in the making for a while. As an individual, you can view this as unethical, even an indication of bad organisational politics, or you can recognise that this is the way the company operates.

If you choose the latter course of action, you should identify the positive political steps needed to get your project approved in this way next time. These might include:

  • Circulating your proposal, to establish those who are for or against
  • Isolating problem areas and seeking acceptable alternatives
  • Building credibility with the quality/maturity of your approach
  • Identifying whose opinion carries the most influence
  • Finding allies to support your case
  • Building momentum behind the proposal
  • Lobbying the decision makers and overcoming objections.

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9. Why do we waste so much time competing with each other rather than the real competition?

This is usually a sure sign that politics are being pursued at the expense of more productive activity in the workplace. Often, corporate systems of resource allocation or performance reward processes are put in place with little regard for the ways in which they might affect human behaviour. That is why a careful balance must be struck between motivating individuals to ‘fight their corner’ and recognising that they are part of a team that needs to co-operate on a daily basis.

It takes high levels of political intelligence to recognise these dangers and to interact with colleagues on a constructive basis. The external competition can only be fought off by a lean, mean and efficient team – not one that is constantly being undermined by political behaviour of the worst kind. This topic covers these highly important organisational issues as well as the skills needed by individuals.

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