Political Intelligence

by Don Morley and David Bancroft-Turner

How Politically Intelligent are you?

Recognising just where you are positioned on the political intelligence model is a very useful start to managing the politics in your organisation. The two elements that follow provide you with typical political issues; your answers will determine if you have higher or lower political intelligence.

Exercise

Go through the statements in elements A and B first and make a note of those that you agree with.

Element A

  1. People who play politics take unnecessary risks with their careers.
  2. Well-reasoned arguments should always win the day.
  3. Being clear about what I have to do and achieve is mainly my manager’s responsibility.
  4. Difficult issues should always be dealt with immediately.
  5. No one should get special treatment.
  6. Networking should not be necessary if the structure is right.
  7. The projects with the most merit should always get the necessary budget.
  8. Total openness and honesty is by far the best approach.
  9. It is better to leave playing politics to others.

Element B

  1. It is imperative to know where the power really lies in an organisation.
  2. There are many long term benefits in keeping people on side.
  3. When I do favours for others I am comfortable in asking for favours in return.
  4. Total openness may not be appropriate on all occasions.
  5. It is important to pick the right time and place to deal with a difficult issue.
  6. Very often it is not so much what you know as who you know.
  7. Effective networking is often critical in business.
  8. The pot is limited, so it is legitimate to influence others to obtain resources.
  9. You need to be alert to, and manage, the politics in your organisation.

Explanations

If you have agreed with more statements in element A than element B, this indicates that you might need to work on your political intelligence. Check the explanations below and consider why you did not agree with more element B statements and also why you chose to agree with those particular statements in element A.

If you had a higher element B score than A score, it suggests you have some political intelligence. However, you will still benefit from addressing the explanations to any element B statement you did not agree with and also reconsidering any element A statements that you did agree with.

Element A – low political intelligence

  1. You assume that all politics is bad and that you have a choice whether to participate or not. In reality, politics is not a game – it is the way things get done and a legitimate tool, if used appropriately. Avoiding politics will make you less effective in your role than if you come to terms with its existence and build skills to manage situations positively. The greatest risk to you, and your team, may lie in thinking that you can ignore the politics in your organisation.
  2. If you fail to recognise that decisions are not always based on numbers and logic, you may lose the very support you need. The next time you are involved in such processes or discussions, consider all the angles and ensure that you understand individuals’ motives and emotions, as well as the bigger picture.
  3. If you merely follow your manager’s lead, do not be surprised when personal progress is slow. These days, people are expected to become engaged in the role they can play and take responsibility for managing their career. Constant change means it is vital to continuously ensure that you are clear on what is required of you and that you have the skills and tools to deliver. Use all the methods of information gathering to provide you with the necessary intelligence for adding value to your role and contribution.
  4. A sense of urgency and action orientation is increasingly highly prized, but if you handle issues prematurely, you may well make the situation worse rather than better. Avoid over-reacting; think through the consequences beforehand. Before you understand all the circumstances and implications, you may need more facts, information and wider consultation. Staff will find it easier to accept your decisions when they appreciate the consideration you have given to achieving the best outcome.
  5. It’s important to recognise the relative strengths, values, differences and needs of people. There will be newcomers who are getting up to speed and there might be someone with high potential with whom you similarly need to spend more coaching time. If you are flexible and understand such issues, you can treat everyone appropriately.
  6. This rather blinkered view overlooks the complexity of modern organisations and the way that they function. Failing to network appropriately could result in a lack of information, contacts and support. If you don’t fully appreciate the bigger picture and you lack the right allies when it really matters, this might easily lead you into sub-optimal decisions and performance.
  7. Your opposition, if not well founded, could damage your credibility. Remember...
  • One person’s view of the ‘most merit’ is frequently different to another’s.
  • You can’t afford to overlook the emotional ties to projects that the sponsor or team may have.
  • The sponsor may have the backing of powerful forces within the organisation.
  • There may be bigger issues at stake.

Likewise, think your own projects through and be ready to counter attacks which seem invalid to you but which may gain a hearing with decision makers.

  1. Openness and honesty have their place but you should consider others’ agendas, motives and emotions. You can easily cause hurt, embarrassment and cost by choosing the wrong time and place. If people are not receptive, they will not heed your message. You may damage the relationship and jeopardise trust, which will impact future working.
  2. You simply cannot afford to ignore the presence of politics in the organisation. If you do, you may be left exposed and vulnerable, indeed your very survival may be jeopardised and you will quite likely be less effective in your role. Understanding and being able to manage the politics is an essential skill that will raise your credibility and help you achieve win/win outcomes.

Element B – high political intelligence

  1. An organisation’s structure chart is often misleading. It won’t tell you which individuals wield greater power than their colleagues, for instance. Because, in practice, they make many of the key decisions, they are essential to have on your side. Therefore you need to ensure you know them and they know you. You need to keep up to date with power shifts, knowing who the high flyers are, whose star is waning and who is in and who is out. Some functions – IT in recent years, for example – also have considerably more power from day to day than the chart would suggest.
  2. Tactics and strategies are often short term, but being successful as an individual, and an organisation, requires constant effort over long periods of time. Being open, disclosing your point of view, sharing information, listening carefully and being supportive are all ways to get active involvement and support from others. If you need to challenge colleagues, do it assertively not aggressively; be sensitive but honest, and always aim for a clear understanding of each others’ point of view.
  3. You need to be comfortable with this approach or you may well lose future opportunities for support. If you clearly give as well as take, you provide the opportunity for others to do the same and build effective working relationships. People will want to work with you and for you because they realise the mutual benefit and it is in keeping with the collaborative side of human nature.
  4. Openness is commendable and positive workplace behaviour, but there will be circumstances when advanced, or privileged, information cannot be passed on immediately. Shades of grey are a fact of life and you will be respected for knowing when things need to be kept confidential and when they can be disclosed appropriately. Remember, you only come into possession of such information when the provider respects the judgement you will use in handling it.
  5. When dealing with staff, particularly those more junior, judgement is required to time feedback, address issues and disclose information to achieve the desired outcome. You could easily dent a colleague’s confidence, or risk showing them up, by being hasty in reacting. If you need to challenge upwards, it becomes even more important to consider where, when and how to raise an issue in order to get a positive hearing.
  6. It takes time and effort to get to know the key people within the organisation, but the reward is access to allies and support mechanisms. You will be better informed, better known and better placed to understand the bigger picture as well as others’ goals, views and situation – all vital to political intelligence. Key people are also a vital source of feedback for your own views.
  7. Today’s emphasis on project teams and cross functional working puts a premium on having a wide number of contacts. This also applies externally, where membership of institutes, clubs and trade associations offer routes to being better informed, better known, and building your credibility and reputation. To meet personal and organisational objectives, now and in the future, keep your network under constant review for quantity and quality.
  8. Unless you fight for resources in today’s lean and cost conscious organisations, your ability to be effective could be severely constrained. If you use appropriate influencing skills and demonstrate flexibility, you will retain the respect of colleagues, especially if you succeed in achieving a win/win outcome. Inappropriate methods will create resentment and reduce cooperation in the future, to the detriment of yourself and the organisation.
  9. There is an abundance of evidence that almost every organisation experiences the effects of politics on a daily basis. To ignore its very existence would be unprofessional. Without putting every effort into networking, keeping well informed and demonstrating political intelligence for all to see, you not only run the risk of underperformance but also unplanned outcomes for you and your staff.