Political Savvy

“Man is by nature a political animal” Aristotle

One of the factors that distinguish the people who succeed in business that is not as widely discussed as it might be is the ability to mobilise support for a position, decision or action. (Or as it is more commonly known ‘political savvy’.)


You have to be in it to win it

Some people feel very uncomfortable actively engaging in office politics and consider it to be destructive and unethical. This is a naïve view. Nothing happens in organisations without building a level of support for a given action and the only question is if the objective being targeted is based on an individual’s narrow self-interest or the ‘greater good’. The plain truth is that if you are not actively influencing what is happening in a company, you are at the mercy of someone else who is (and they may not have your best interests at heart!)

How powerful are you?

People will listen to you if they feel you have a source of authority or ‘power’ that they feel compelled to respond to. In the business context David A. Whetten and Kim S. Cameron, in Developing Management Skills, identify nine powerbases that the savvy leader can build and use to make things happen. These sources of power are divided into four that relate to the Personal Power of the individual e.g. their expertise, their charisma etc. and five that relate to Position Power (i.e. they correlate to the role the person has.) Interestingly, one of the most important powerbases that Whetten and Cameron identify is that of “networking.” So the ability to build and maintain a set of stable relationships is one of the key success factors in influencing and organisational awareness. One common mistake with the networking powerbase is to wait until there is a pressing need before trying to make friends. Effective people build relationships before they need them and make sure they understand the agendas of potential allies well in advance of asking for support on any given issue.

From power to influencing

To get buy-in for an idea, you need (a) the powerbases to get people to take you seriously and (b) to adopt a range of influencing tactics when actually engaging with people. There are six commonly used styles:

  1. Inspirational Appeals. Making a request or proposal that arouses enthusiasm by appealing to values, ideals, and aspirations.
  2. Consultation. Seeking participation in planning a strategy or activity, in return for a person’s support.
  3. Ingratiation. The use of praise, flattery, or friendly behaviour to get the person in a good mood
  4. Exchange. Offering an exchange of favours, or a promise to share the benefits if the person helps accomplish a task. (You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.)
  5. Rational Persuasion. Using logical arguments and data to persuade the person that a request is sensible.
  6. Pressure. Using demands, threats, frequent checking, or persistent reminders to influence the person’s actions.

Over reliance on any one tactic usually leads to poor results and often a range of tactics is needed for success e.g. combining a presentation of “ the numbers” with an inspirational appeal is a highly effective approach in many business contexts. Of course the culture of an organisation will be an important factor in determining what tactic is most likely to prevail. In some businesses successful arguments are primarily made in terms of business risk, in others it is about ‘trading favours’, and in some the inherent inertia might be such that people might only move in response to ‘Pressure.’

Catching the Zeitgeist – 5 steps to political influencing

Political astuteness when attempting to get a specific point agreed, or policy adopted, typically involves a five-stage process:

  1. Surf the ‘Zeitgeist’. The “spirit of the times” or Zeitgeist refers to the general cultural, intellectual, ethical and political climate and if you can dovetail what you want with the current ‘hot topics’ you can create a sense of momentum that makes a proposal almost unstoppable.
  2. Get to the issue early. All too often people wake up to an issue when rivals have already built their alliances. By then you are reduced to trying to stop what you don’t want and it can look self-serving and desperate.
  3. Stakeholder mapping. Identify anyone who has an interest in, or who would be affected by, your idea. Assess how they are likely to react to your proposal; accept that some resistance is inevitable.
  4. Build a coalition. Start with one or two key people and get them on your side. Then extend the size of the coalition. Explain how people can gain by supporting your proposal and/or make the downside of opposing you clear. Ensure you build a broad consensus.
  5. Take action. Put forward a constructive proposal. Implement the solution and be sure to publicise success. Demonstrate how implementing your idea has helped the organisation e.g. by easing workload, cutting costs etc.

Office politics & career development

Harvey Coleman in his book “Empowering yourself; the organisational game revealed” states that career success is based on the three key elements; Performance, Image and Exposure (the PIE model):

  1. Performance: the day-to-day work you are responsible for and the quality of the results you deliver.
  2. Image: what other people think of you. For example, do you have a positive attitude? Do you propose solutions to issues, or just identify roadblocks when others suggest changes?
  3. Exposure: who knows about you and what you do. Does your boss acknowledge your successes? Does their boss know you and what you do?

Coleman concludes that Performance counts for just 10% of a person’s success, Image 30% and Exposure 60% (empathising again the importance of effective ‘networking’.) So hard work is necessary for success but not sufficient. To climb the ladder it is vital to actively campaign for your career, because it is just not possible to opt out of the political game at work and still win in your career.

So what’s next???

If you want to do more to boost your organisational awareness or political savvy you might like to try reading:

  • Bacharach, S. 2005. Get Them on Your Side. Adams Media Corp.
  • Flynn, Heath & Holt 2012. Three ways women can make office politics work for them

Or maybe take the online self-assessment of your own “organisation savvy” abilities, based on the book by Brandon & Seldman (Survival of the Savvy)


You might also like think about booking an in-house Boulden two day “Advanced Influencing Skills course

Or maybe try our ‘one to one’ executive coaching services for individual guidance on improving your ‘political savvy’.

Until the next time I will leave you with this well known quote from Bismark, which I think, sums up the essentially practical and pragmatic aspects of being ‘savvy’; “Politics”, he said, “is the art of the possible.”