Increasing Political Savvy

From the movie "Lincoln."
In my last post I wrote about the movie "Lincoln" and its depiction of politics in action. In this post we'll take a look at some of the things you can do to increase your political savvy and thereby increase you ability to be effective and exercise influence.

Most of us have a complicated relationship with what is generally referred to as "political savvy" in organizations, and our view of the term is generally negative. We all know someone who rose to a position of power and influence based on political skills, self-promotion, and connections rather than merit. None of us want to be that person. Unfortunately, in our efforts not to be that person we overreact and develop an aversion to politics that can undermine our ability to influence others.

This phenomenon is one of the most common obstacles leaders face when trying to move from middle management to senior management: they have allowed their aversion to being that person undermine the development of their influencing skills. As a result of actively avoiding politics, they lack political savvy.

Here are some ways to improve this important competence.

The first thing someone has to do in becoming political savvy is to realize the value of it and be very clear about why developing more of it is in your best interests. As "Lincoln" demonstrates, we can achieve noble ends with politics as well as nefarious ends, and it does little good to "have a True North if we get lost in the swamps on the way there." Good leaders commit to developing good political skills with the understanding that they are necessary to getting good work done.

A second objection is that organizational politics waste time that could be spent working. I italicize working in this instance because organizational politics are also hard work! And they are a necessary part of work. Whenever two or more people are affected by an action, conflicting needs and values come into play. The way we resolve these conflicts is through politics. Ignoring those needs and value conflicts will ensure that our initiatives stall. Politics are part of the task, not a needless distraction from work.

So, once we're committed to becoming more politically savvy, what can we do?
  • It always helps to start with a best practice analysis, and the best people to analyze are those around you who are politically savvy. Look for those who influence others in a way that you respect rather than focusing on those who do it in a superficial or substance-less style. Make a list of the things they do--how they address people, how they speak, how they listen, how they get things done. Pick two or three things from that list that you would feel comfortable doing and then create an action plan to start doing them.
  • Become a student of politics, influence, and power. Read books on leaders and pay attention how they exercise politics. Be very careful here: Some will read a biography of a famous leader such as, say, Patton and think that his style--tough, demanding, abrasive--is the best way to lead. In fact, it was Patton's lack of political savvy that ultimately hindered him from achieving even more than he did. Learn to distinguish between the political capabilities that result in a leader's success and the incidental qualities that may have held them back.
  • Network, network, network. Stretch outside your normal circle and get to know people. Identify influencers in your organization and find a way to interact with them. Be strategic about networking with influencers and don't waste their time. Find a way that you can be helpful to them. It is also very effective to ask them for a small favor. We all tend to raise the value of those in whom we invest in some way (psychologists call this "an investment bias"); if you can get an influencer to do you a small favor that doesn't cost them much time or energy, they will naturally see you as more valuable and worth-knowing than they did before.
  • Focus on feelings. Like it are not, we are emotion-driven creatures rather than data-driven creatures. We feel first; second, we try to figure out why we feel a certain way or simply rationalize our emotion-driven decisions. Of course, we always want to try to overcome this pattern in ourselves and be as data-driven as possible, but we have to understand that if we want to influence people we have to speak to their emotions and support it with data. Good politicians know that you campaign in poetry and you govern in prose. Effective "campaigning" for your ideas is part of being an influencer, and this is done through an acknowledgement of and appeal to the emotions of others (the poetry). Of course, the campaigning must be followed up with data, strategy, and execution (the prose). A simple exercise when trying to influence others is to give some thought to how you want people to feel about themselves (rather than about you), and tailor your message accordingly. 

Politics can be treacherous, and many people do unsavory and self-serving things through political means. However, being politically savvy is the only way to get things done. As the movie Lincoln said,  you can only get to the goal if you don't get lost in the swamps along the way.