Research

Acquiring Political Intelligence

Executives are smart people, but they can often be remarkably stupid. Too often they assume problems can be solved with superior analytical abilities. This means they spend their time trying to come up with the most rational solution. This might create the best technical solution. However, these technically perfect results often run into stiff opposition and eventually get dropped - so often in favour of an inferior solution. This can be disastrous. It can mean good ideas get shelved, talented managers become frustrated and unmotivated, and organisations get weighed down. Why does this happen?

We think the reason behind this is many organisations convince themselves that analytical ability is the only quality that matters. They tell you that people get ahead on the basis of these abilities and this is how good decisions are made. However, some organisations are now valuing emotional intelligence as a supplement to analytical skills. They measure and promote people on the ability to make sense of people's emotions and social dynamics. But what is still too often overlooked is political intelligence. This is the understanding of how power and politics works in the organisation.

Political intelligence is a vital, but the often unnoticed ability, that some excel in when making their way through the corporate jungle. We wanted to know what this skill involved. So we systematically analysed all of the researched conducted on organisational politics over the last 30 years. The research surveyed covered a wide range of workplaces, involving many thousands of people in large organisations across the world. Our results have recently been published in the prestigious US journal, Academy of Management Annals.

What are the practical insights for practising managers who seek to strengthen their political intelligence?

1. Accept politics is an inevitable part of organisational life

First and foremost, managers must drop the fallacy that politics is always destructive. The great majority of seasoned managers still erroneously believe that politics in organisational life is a damaging waste of time. They hope for a workplace free from politics where the most rational solutions will win the day. Most say they go out of their way to avoid politics. The evidence suggests that this effectively puts a 'hand-break' on their ability to get things done well, their career progress, and it will often lead to more stress.

Understanding the political terrain - sometimes three or four decisions in advance - is an essential part of achieving tasks both small and large. Those who accept the reality of politics are able to approach these important levers of power with their eyes wide open. But perhaps more crucially, it will help them to think ahead and devote time and effort to getting the politics right around a particular project - rather than simply focusing on how the most rational decision can be delivered on time.

But believing that politics is the only thing which needs to be considered is equally dangerous. An over-obsession with political issues can mean that managers lose sight of other important aspects of organisational life. A good manager is able to recognise that politics is part of the job, but not the whole job.

2. Political intelligence can be learned

Typically managers believe that some people by their nature are politically astute, whereas others are not. This is to some extent true. There are some basic personality traits such as extraversion and an external locus of control that made people more likely to be politically savvy. Indeed, psychologists even suggest there is a personality trait called 'Machiavellianism' which makes people more politically adept. This entails the ability to be unemotional, manipulative and not tell people the real reason why they are doing things.

While some might feel naturally comfortable about engaging in politics, this is not the end of the story. Oftentimes people who are interested in organisational politics might not actually be particularly good at it. For example, they may use power in a ham-fisted way which makes others suspicious of them or even resentful. Over time this can erode the organisation's trust in them and compromise effectiveness. In some cases, a leader with low political intelligence can spark significant resistance, making their objectives much harder to achieve.

Political skill is something which can be learned. Because it is based on the complex calculation in real world situations, it is often best acquired through practice and role-modelling. Good training institutions recognize this when they create situations and scenarios that school managers in the art of politics. For instance, one of the big lessons students learn in the MBA classroom is how to gain some airtime among many other bright people and how to shift the direction of argument and debate. Similarly, students who attend the elite colleges at Oxford and Cambridge universities are required to ritually attend formal dinners and conduct an intelligent conversation with senior people from a range of disciplinary backgrounds. It is likely that those with high political intelligence have experienced a number of these pressure cooker situations which teaches them how to simultaneously compete and collaborate in order to advance themselves and their projects.

3. Understand the political map of the organisation

Managers with strong political intelligence look beyond the formal chain of command - they need to also grasp the informal political map of the organisation. To begin charting this political map, there are four questions managers should ask themselves:

a. Where are the most important resources in my organisation? One of the most important sources of power in any organization is scarce resources. These are things which are vital to keep the organisation going. Such resources can come in different forms including funding, people, knowledge, and specialist skills. Affective managers understand where resources are concentrated in their organisations and who controls them. The holders or gatekeepers of scarce resources may not always be those with official or formal power.

b. What do the social networks in your organisation look like? A politically savvy manager understands the informal connections between people in an organisation. They know who talks with whom, where hidden conflicts and loyalties are, and who they can approach for important information. What is more, they have a good understanding of where there are disconnections in the organisation's social network. For instance, they might observe too few lateral lines of communication between two departments that depend on one another. By constructing a detailed political map of the organisation, they know where they should try to position themselves, and how different decisions require the activation of different parts of an ever shifting social network.

c. What are the deeply rooted values in my organisation? Politically skilled managers usually have an excellent sense of informal changes in mood, beliefs and values in their organisation. They understand what is important to different people in the organisation, and what kinds of arguments different people will buy (and what they will not). For example, if a firm seeks to restructure its IT team, how will this impact on the morale of firm as a whole? How much goodwill is in reserve, and when do I know when it is becoming dangerously low?

d. Which identities are most important? A highly politically savvy manager understands how people in the organisation think about themselves in terms of roles, importance and future plans. Which collective identities in the organisation are people most attached to? What are they proud of, but also anxious and ashamed of? People who have acquired this skill are able to frame proposals and decisions in a manner that appear to bolster a valued identity - or at the very least, do no harm to it. For instance, when new electronic technologies were introduced in libraries, they were largely presented to librarians as an aid which would help them to be better librarians (rather than replacing them).

3. Build up your repertoire of political tactics

The third big lesson from our research is that managers with strong political intelligence tend to build up a tool-box of political tactics over time. The three most important tactics we noticed in the literature were:

a. Gaining control over critical resources. The most political skilled managers could not only see the distribution of resources in their organization; they were also adept at gaining control over them. Sometimes this is difficult when obvious resources such as budgets or large divisions of people were at stake. But any alternative route involved gaining control over resources which were crucial to the functioning of the organisation, but were often underestimated or overlooked.

b. Use networks to bridge 'structural holes'. Skilled organisational politicians are strategic in their networking. They do not just go out their way to make as many contacts as possible. The problem with this strategy is that it takes too much time. Instead they seek to nurture a small number of selective relationships. These connections ideally bridge 'structural holes' in an organisation, important disconnects between different clusters of personnel. When managers can successfully act as a bridge between two otherwise separate networks, they often obtain privileged access to information, resources and much more.

c. Packaging projects that resonate with widely accepted values. Politically savvy managers are good at packaging their ideas or proposals in a way that appeals to a wide range of stakeholders in the organisation. They intuitively understand how to connect their proposals to deeply seated values which exist in different parts of the organisation. The best managers are often able to work with a range of different values. For instance, if they are talking with engineers, they are able to appeal to technical arguments. If they are engaging with the finance department, they can use a financial lexicon. Actors with high political intelligence are multilingual insofar as they can speak the language of different professional communities in the organisation.

4. Be ready to play the political game at many levels

The final lesson we learned from the evidence is that many of the best organisational politicians were able to activate their tactics on a number of levels. They would often try one approach (say among peers), and if that didn't work reformulate and then try another level (say, subordinates or external organisational stakeholders). Here are the different directions and levels that people with strong political intelligence were able to successfully influence:

a. Downwards. This involves influencing and persuading subordinates in order to garner support. We found that direct commands rarely did the trick - particularly in complex organisations which offer ample room for various types of resistance. Often the most successful organizations combined a range of more subtle exercises of power which made subordinates think they were following their own interests while actually complying with a manager's project.

b. Sideways. We also found in the research that managers often ignored their peers when seeking to promote a project or make a proposal successful. However, those that did often utilized a high level of political intelligence, because they had to avoid being perceived a manipulative, self-interested or competitive. For this reason, sideways politicking often relies on more subtle forms of power such as the control of attractive scarce resources, appeals to collaborative values and shared identities.

c. Upwards. Seeking to influence upwards in their organisations in one of the biggest challenges managers can face. Those who successfully do so avoid aggressive commands born out of frustration. Nor do they expect support from superiors by merely appealing to self-evident information. Instead, they seek to build informal networks that have upward influence, go the extra-mile in order to develop a cache of returnable favours, and prove themselves indispensable to the frim by building a strong reputation, especially under stressful conditions. However, the politically intelligent manager also understands that these tactics can have a downside. Their good deeds may not be returned, and they may even find themselves exploited. Moreover, they risk the perception among peers of gratuitously currying favour with superiors.

d. Outwards. In addition to influencing people within the organisation, skilled politicians are able to span organisational boundaries and engage with stakeholders beyond the formal enterprise. This might involve swaying legislators, professional communities, investors and a range of other important groups. Being able to mobilise these extra-organisational bodies makes it easier to create the conditions for desired change and outcomes. Once again, there is a danger here that politically intelligent actors are well aware of. For example, if superiors feel that you have brought undue attention to the firm - from a legislator or professional body - there can be very negative repercussions. Moreover, external power holders may be unpredictable, and once activated behave in unanticipated ways.

In conclusion, we have found that these are the main features of political intelligence we observed in our survey of a large body of literature and research. The final lesson we learned from this research is that those with strong political behaviour intelligence often have a very astute understanding of how their behaviour is perceived by others. They avoid being labelled 'Machiavellian' at all costs because it can instil paranoid among important stakeholders ('can I really be honest with this person, or will they stab me in the back'). They also have a good sense of timing, especially concerning when not to be political (e.g., negatively discussing your boss when he or she is away on vacation). And finally, political intelligence appears to be strongest among those who can achieve their objectives by carefully resonating with the needs, identities and goals of others.